Evelyn Alexander hated weddings.
Yet, here she stood, covered in lace and satin. Her shoulder-length blonde hair meticulously swept into an elaborate updo, nails painted, makeup perfect. A bouquet of white roses bundled together with pink baby’s breath and navy blue ribbon served as accents. This was supposed to be a happy time, so why did the weight of the world sit squarely on her chest, making it difficult to breathe? She needed to be happy, even wanted to be happy. Despite all the logic and her strong desire for a genuine smile to appear on her face, she’d been unable to muster more than a small, and totally fake, upturn of her mouth.
Moving away from the rest of the bridal party, she stared out the window. Blinking rapidly, she fought against the mounting moisture. No tears allowed today. God knew there’d been more than enough of those in the past few months. The heart does things for reasons, that reason cannot understand. Great. Now she was quoting Disney movies. After the ceremony ended, she would fuss at Jason, her youngest son, for making her watch The Princess Diaries, Royal Engagement.
Only one reason explained why she agreed to be part of this elaborate production known as a wedding. One reason only.
Sometimes, as the song said, love just wasn’t enough. So she’d also called her willpower and determination into service to get dressed, make her way to the church, and face the music. The last few months had shaken her to the very deepest core of her being and unsettled the delicate façade of control she’d duct taped together out of the pieces of her life.
No more feeling sorry for herself. Drawing to her full five feet eight inches, she inhaled and exhaled slowly. The soft scent of the roses delivered peaceful endorphins to her brain, and she managed a smile.
“Ev, you ready?”
A familiar voice prompted her to turn from the window view. “I’m ready.”
“Are you sure? You’ve been pretty quiet all afternoon, and this is only the rehearsal.”
Time to prove she was still calm, cool, and always in control Evelyn. “This is a momentous occasion.” She handed the bouquet over to her younger sister, Melodie. One of the few people in the world she loved enough to endure the pomp and circumstance of a full-blown church wedding. “After all, it’s not every day my baby sister gets married.”
* * *
The courtyard of the church came to life as the wedding party and a few guests made their way outside to prepare for the rehearsal. Tomorrow afternoon, the rest of the chairs would be set up, the scent of fresh flowers would fill the air, and a string quartet would provide a soundtrack for the ceremony.
Yes, this promised to deliver all the makings of a fairy-tale wedding. At least this time, thank God, it wasn’t her tying the knot. Her fairy-tale wedding had fallen ghastly short of happily ever after. Her good-boy-turned-bad husband divorced her after stealing over a decade of her life, draining both her youth and happiness. In exchange, she got the house and joint custody of their two sons. Considering what a fraud their marriage had been, she’d been on the winning end of the settlement agreement.
Tomorrow, her little sister, Melodie, Mel to friends and family, was tying the knot to her bad-boy-turned-good soldier. Maybe that was where she’d gone wrong. When you started with perfection, there was nowhere to go but down. If anyone deserved happiness, it was Mel. She wanted her to be happy, maybe even needed her to be happy. One of them should be at least, right?
The sound of laughter drew her attention to the side yard. Daniel, the groom, and several other men, including her father, were making their way from the side of the church. Her throat constricted, and she fought hard to swallow the lump of emotion as she recognized two of the men with Daniel. I should’ve known…
The moment her gaze fell on the dark-haired, muscled man, jelly replaced the bones in her knees, sending her entire body collapsing onto one of the plastic white chairs provided for the guests.
“Ev! What’s wrong? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Melodie rushed to her side, followed closely by the rest of the women in the bridal party.
“This is exactly why an outdoor wedding is not a good idea. Your sister obviously can’t handle the temperature.”
Her mother’s condescending tone grated already frayed nerves. “I’m fine.” To prove her point, Evelyn stood and glanced past Marie’s annoyed form. It is him. She needed to get away from here until she could compose herself. “Mel, maybe a drink of water will help. Is there a water fountain inside the church?” She needed much more than a drink of water, but since her sister had defied the family once again and chosen a Protestant church over a Catholic one, sneaking some wine from the communion stash proved impossible.
Melodie nodded and offered her arm in support. Marie followed closely behind. “Mother, we’ll be fine. Just give Ev and me a few minutes.”
Marie moved to cut off her escape. She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Honestly, Melodie. Tell me you’ll reconsider and move the ceremony inside for a proper wedding.”
Accustomed to being the one to stand up to their mother, Evelyn opened her mouth to defend her sister’s choices. Melodie beat her to the starting gate. “I appreciate your concern, but this is one of those subjects on which we’re going to have to agree to disagree.”
Nicely done, little sis. The transformation in her sister infused Evelyn with pride. After meeting Daniel, Melodie emerged from a wallflower into a butterfly, confidently fluttering her wings, especially when it came to standing up to their domineering mother.
“Fine, but rest assured I will be the first to say I told you so if the heavens open up and drown all your guests.”
Melodie’s chuckle brought a smile to Evelyn as well. It was nice not having to always be the strong one.
“The honor will be all yours, Mother. Now, let me get Ev inside, and we’ll be back in a few to get started.”
Once in the kitchen, Melodie handed her a glass of water. “You want to tell me what the hell is going on? In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you get faint or collapse.”
The cool water helped calm her racing heart. She locked her gaze on Melodie’s face, ignoring the wrinkling of her sister’s brow and eyes clouded with concern. “Is there a reason during the past several months of wedding planning you never mentioned Cody Jenkins was Daniel’s best man?”
Melodie smiled. “I distinctly remember telling you about Babyface.”
“Yeah that’s what Daniel and all the guys call him. He’s thirty, but with that sweet, innocent face, he looks much younger.”
Thoughts of Cody’s eyes darkening with passion and his full lips gliding over her body assaulted her senses, delivering tingling to long dormant regions of her body. Sweet? Innocent? Not even close. “Still, you could’ve given me full names rather than a nickname.” I should’ve realized…
Melodie shrugged. “I dunno. We always talked about the girl-related stuff. You never asked either.”
Mel had a point. Sipping the drink slowly bought her some much needed time to collect her emotions and tuck them neatly away again. “You’re right, I didn’t. I’m feeling better now. Sorry for the delay in the rehearsal.” She set the glass down, ready to return and face the one person who’d managed to see past all the walls and edges to her personality and find the softer woman she hid away from the rest of the world.
She also made a mental note to strangle Daniel for not telling her. He was the only one who knew about the transgression from her past. Knew and conveniently kept the detail about Cody from me. Plotting ways to make him pay for this omission, intentional or not, brought a small measure of pleasure in the midst of this mess.
A firm hand on her shoulder stopped her from imagining Daniel in distress as she keyed his precious Ducati motorcycle. “Tell me why you’re freaking out about Cody.”
Ev shook her head. The day before her sister’s wedding was not the time to share the details of the downward spiral of the demise of her marriage. “Not now. Let’s go. You don’t want to be late to your own rehearsal.”
Mel laughed. “I’m pretty sure they won’t start without me.”
They walked side by side to the grounds where the ceremony would be held. The Trinity Community Church boasted a beautiful garden area perfect for an outdoor wedding.
The coordinator greeted their arrival. “Here they are, the bride and matron of honor. Places everyone.”
Matron of honor. Seriously? Matron conjured up images of old and bitter women. If the title fits… She fought the desire to give in to the negativity. This weekend was about Mel and her happiness. Evelyn didn’t want to be responsible for even one sad or troubling moment. Time to bury the hurt and move forward. Nathan made his choices, and she would make hers. Straightening her spine, she moved to join the rest of the bridal party
The stringed quartet began playing softly, signifying the cue to begin the walk down the aisle. The other groomsman, Samuel, waited at the halfway mark to escort Lydia, another bridesmaid, the remaining distance to the front. In only a few moments, Evelyn would take the same steps, with Cody waiting as the escort. Her heart seized at the thought of touching Cody again. His face might resemble a “baby,” but his body… Muscled arms and the hard planes of his chest—don’t even get her started on those thighs. Dear God, those thighs…
“Auntie Ev, it’s your turn. Go!” An urgent whisper from Daniel’s daughter, Annie, prompted her forward. The child took being a flower girl even more seriously than she did being a princess—and that was saying something. Thankful for the distraction, she pulled her shoulders back and put one foot in front of the other, ready to face the one man responsible for making her question every preconceived notion she’d formed about her life, all in one night. A night she’d tried, unsuccessfully, to forget.
* * *
Sweet Jesus in heaven, it is her. Cody blinked twice as the blonde bombshell moved slowly down the aisle toward him. Her eyes and hair were the same, and her body…oh yeah, the curves were exactly how he remembered them. The tips of his fingers burned from the memory of touching every inch of her sexy figure.
He extended his arm and smiled, but she didn’t return the gesture. Her hand slipped into the crook of his elbow. No ring. He tucked that little detail away, pulled her closer, and led her the remaining distance to the rest of the wedding party gathered by the preacher. Okay, for one second he’d focus on the detail that his blonde beauty wasn’t married. The thought spurred a crazy notion he turn right at the trellis, take her behind the big oak tree in the corner of the property, and kiss her senseless until she confessed their night together meant as much to her as it did him.
He’d almost given up on love, on ever feeling anything remotely close to love—until he’d met the passionate and unrestrained woman now walking next to him. He’d known she wasn’t free to love, but that hadn’t stopped him. A molten-hot bullet in your thigh tended to remind a person how short life could be. The unhappiness she’d tried to hide deep in those baby blues when they’d first met told him her marriage had already ended, for all intents and purposes. He’d asked her to stay in touch, but true to her word, the morning they’d said good-bye, he’d never heard from her again.
He squeezed her hand gently before releasing it and turned to take his place next to the groom, who offered a serious roll of his eyes. Cody shrugged and winked. Over beers tonight, he’d find out why his long-time buddy had failed to mention his bride-to-be was sisters with the best one-night stand he’d ever had. Not that he’d had many. His time with her, however, he’d like to repeat night after night. He ventured a glance in Evelyn’s direction as Annie made her way down the aisle. An indulgent smile formed on Evelyn’s face as the nine-year-old skipped along the white runner, pretending to toss rose petals on the path. A moment later, he couldn’t resist another glance and caught her looking at him. Not only did her smile disappear, but the almost cold hard look sent a distinct message—she was not as happy to see him as he was to see her.