Someone—make that someone besides me—really needs to take charge of this dress debacle.
Turning her back on the bride’s stubborn battle with an intractable zipper, Ellie Marone aimed a pleading look at the only other candidate for the job, her daughter Julie.
Julie’s expression clearly said Not it!
Ellie sighed. Apparently, as Kate’s matron of honor, it was up to her to deal out the tough love.
She stalled. Dealing out love to her best friend, that was easy. But being tough? Way harder. For four decades, she and Kate had faced the world arm-in-arm, dried each others’ tears, fought each others’ foes. Without Kate, well, Ellie didn’t know how she would’ve survived Jake’s death, much less pulled herself together to raise their two amazing daughters. It was no exaggeration to say that all of them, especially Ellie, owed Kate their lives.
And just three years ago when Ellie fell for the wrong guy and got her heart mangled again, Kate helped her through that too. And Ellie had gotten past it. Yes, she had.
Tomorrow Kate would finally marry the man of her dreams, and Ellie couldn’t be happier for her. Sure, she worried that Kate might drift away from her. But she told herself that was rank paranoia. They were best friends for life, and Ellie would love Kate forever.
Unfortunately, Ellie now had to break the news to her that, at forty-eight, there was more of her to love than there used to be. The problem was, the task called for subtlety. Tact. Delicate euphemisms.
In other words, it called for anybody but Ellie.
At the high school where she’d once taught and now served as principal, Ellie’s colleagues affectionately described her communication style as blunt, with a side of sarcasm. Sensitive understatement simply wasn’t her strength.
But she owed it to Kate to be honest, and to herself to get it over with. Drawing a fortifying breath, she squared her shoulders and strode across the sunny bridal suite. “Kate,” she said, looking her best friend in the eye, “if you want to get your size eight pooch into this size two dress, you’re gonna have to suck it in.”
“I’m sucking!” Kate gasped.
“We’ll see about that.” Stepping around behind her, Ellie got a grip on the tiny zipper tab and dragged it up, up, up as Kate pulled in her gut, hissed every atom of air from her lungs, and generally tried to make herself three sizes smaller than the good Lord had built her.
The zipper ground to a halt just north of Kate’s waist. Lifting her gaze, Ellie met Kate’s eyes in the full-length mirror. “Keep going,” Kate gasped out.
It was futile, but Ellie put her back into it anyway, gaining another hard-fought inch before the zipper cried Uncle!
In the gap above it, Kate’s flesh bunched and folded. “We’ve got back cleavage,” Ellie informed her.
“Spread it out.” A breathless whisper. “Use your fingers.”
“For crying out loud, Kate, it’s not butter.”
But Ellie tried anyway, pressing and flattening and tucking. And still the zipper refused to budge. She threw up her hands. “It’s not happening.”
In the mirror, Kate shot her a death stare.
Without a word, Ellie turned her around and held up a hand mirror. For a long moment, Kate refused to look. When she did, she groaned weakly. The white satin wedding gown spread apart in a wide V.
“You can’t,” Ellie stated, “squeeze ten pounds of sausage into a five-pound sack.”
“Mom!” Julie gasped.
“What? It’s simple physics.” She patted her wilting friend’s shoulder. “Buck up, Kate. You’re gorgeous and you know it. So what if you’re not a size two like your great-granny was? Women were tiny back then. And they couldn’t vote.”
Kate frowned. “What does voting have to do with it?”
“Non sequitur alert,” Julie chimed in. “Number four for the day, and it’s only noontime. We could be looking at a new record, folks.”
Ellie favored her with a smug smile. “The genius brain works in mysterious ways.”
Julie pointed at Kate. “Thanks again for talking her into that stupid MENSA test.”
“It wasn’t so much talking as goading,” Kate grumbled, letting the dress fall, “and I admit it backfired. I expected to outscore her by fifty points and have bragging rights forever. Who knew she was a closet genius?”
“She hid it well,” Julie agreed.
Ellie waved a careless hand. “It’s hardly surprising,” she said loftily, “that your puny brains failed to recognize superior intellect.”
“Oh please.” Kate stomped to the closet, yanked a powder blue sundress off a hanger and dragged it over her head, all while muttering about the difference between intelligence and common sense, who had which and who didn’t, blah blah.
Ellie rose above it. Gathering up the wedding dress like a good matron of honor, she dumped it on the velvet chaise and dusted her hands. “Okay, that’s out of the way. I don’t know why you even bothered with that old thing when you’ve got a Givenchy waiting in the closet.”
“Ginny Johnson, that’s why,” Kate admitted under her breath.
Ellie propped her fists on her hips. “You’re stilltrying to impress that witch? High school was a long time ago, Kate. You need to make an appointment with yourself, lie down on that leather couch in your office, and analyze the hell out of why, as a successful psychiatrist with a Harvard degree on your wall, you haven’t gotten over the fact that Ginny beat you out for prom queen thirty years ago.”
Kate slumped pitifully. “She works it into the conversation every time I run into her.”
“Uh huh. And I bet the last time you saw her she made a crack about your wedding, about what a pity it is that it took you so long…” Inspiration struck, and Ellie snapped her fingers. “She told you she wore her granny’s wedding dress, didn’t she?”
Kate nodded glumly.
Silently, Ellie fumed. Nobody, but nobody, got to pick on Kate and walk away from it.
But she’d plot her revenge later. For now, “Big deal. So Skinny Ginny got her bony butt into her granny’s dress sometime back in the last century. Since then, she’s down two husbands and up forty pounds. Can’t you see that she only lords it over you about the prom because she’s jealousof everything you’ve accomplished since then?”
Kate perked up. “You really think so?”
“Yeah, I really think so,” Ellie said, just as she said the last hundred times they’d had similar conversations. Apparently, wounds inflicted on young, innocent minds sank deep, and no matter how much time passed, a few simple words could start them bleeding again.
“As for your great-gran’s dress,” Ellie went on, “you would’ve fit into it back in 1995 too. But those days are gone, so pack it off to Goodwill and forget about it.”
“Gee, Mom,” Julie said, “don’t get all sentimental on us.”
“Sentiment won’t get ten pounds of sausage—”
“Enough with the sausage!” Kate shoved her so she plopped down on the chaise. Ellie’s butt landed on the wedding gown, her hand caught in the sleeve, and riiiiip. . .
“Oops.” Ellie tried to seem contrite, but, “Sorry, Kate, that’s on you—”
Kate pounced, flattening Ellie. “I’ll give you sausage,” she cried, gleefully smothering Ellie in handfuls of old satin.
Julie egged her on with a whoop. “Hold her down and I’ll tickle her!”
“No!” Ellie shrieked. She was helpless against tickling, and when Julie’s fingers found her ribs, she lost it completely. Trapped under ten yards of wedding dress and a hundred and thirty pounds of “sausage,” she wriggled like a worm on a hook while Kate and Julie laughed like hyenas.
They might have kept it up for hours, but an über-masculine voice called out from the doorway. “Girl fight!”
Kate’s fiancé, Mike Murphy, ambled into the room. Which was totally awkward, seeing as how Ellie’s wriggling had pushed her yellow sundress up around her waist.
But at least Mike’s appearance put an end to the tickling, if not to the hysterics. Batting satin off her face, she saw Kate clutching her side. Julie was hiccupping.
Rising from the chaise with what dignity she could muster, Ellie quickly shimmied her dress down over her butt. Embarrassing, yes, but she couldn’t really begrudge Mike a last glimpse of lace panties. At fifty, the man’s legendary bachelorhood was coming to an end. From now on, the only panties he’d see were Kate’s cotton high rises.
Besides, it was worth any amount of humiliation to see Kate laughing again.
Speaking of Kate. Ellie finger-combed her chestnut hair back from her brow, and pulled the pin on a grenade. “Sausage!”
Kate sprang at her. Ellie circled the chaise, sprinted for the door, dodged around Mike . . . and slammed into a solid wall of chest and abs.
Oh God, no! It can’t be…
Tilting her head up, up, she found the face attached to all those muscles. Ryan Murphy—Ellie’s three-years-ago heartbreak, and the last person in the world she wanted to chest bump.
She leapt back like he was lethal. Which he was, but not in the obvious way. Sure, he looked like the hardened SWAT-team veteran he was, with his close-cropped blond hair and steely blue eyes.
But all his guns didn’t scare her, or his flash-bangs, or his black belt in karate. No, it was…everything else about him. His wacky humor, his huge heart. His shower-sex smile.
He should have a proximity warning tattooed on his armor-plated pecs:
Stay back or I’ll sneak in under your defenses and kill you with kindness.If I don’t sex you to death first.
She was in his crosshairs now. The surprise on his face was giving way to a grin. In a minute, he’d explode a testosterone bomb and she’d be caught in the fallout.
Backpedaling for dear life, she snagged her heel in the rug, teetered, would’ve fallen, but . . .
* * *
Ryan reached out and hauled Ellie in, pinning her to his chest with both arms. Total overkill for a minor stumble, but hell if he’d miss a chance at an armful of Ellie Marone. Any excuse would do.
Ellie wasn’t having it, of course. She got her arms in between them and tried to pry her way out.
Not so fast, babe.
He held her for a few sweet seconds more, curling one palm around her delicate shoulder, sliding the other down to the familiar dip in the small of her back. Closing his eyes, he cradled her. Breathed her in, breathed her out.
And then, reluctantly, he let her go.
She stepped back, but her scent lingered in his nose. Her warmth imprinted his skin. He missed the feel of her already.
More accurately, after three long years, he missed the feel of her still.
Ellie obviously felt otherwise. On her face, shock had morphed into fury. “What the hell are youdoing here?”
He lifted one brow, a talent she’d once adored. Now she ground her teeth. So he pushed it an extra half inch. “Best man,” he said, biting back a grin when her green eyes widened in horror.
That’s right, sweetheart, I’m here all weekend. You can’t chase me away this time.
Mike clapped his shoulder, a wide grin on his face. “Ry got some time off work after all. When he turned up this morning, Kevin stepped aside so Ry could take over as best man.”
Kate appeared beside her, squeezing Ellie’s rigid arm. “That’s terrific, Ry,” she said, sounding sincere even with Ellie simmering beside her. “But I wish I’d known you were coming. Sunrise Bluffs books solid for the Fourth. I’ll ask the manager—”
“No worries,” Ryan cut in. “I’ll bunk with Mike.”
Ellie’s glare seared holes in him. Instead of meeting it, he glanced over her shoulder at the view out the bay window—rolling green lawn, sparkling blue sea.
“Nice place for a wedding,” he said. A colossal understatement. Ogunquit, Maine, in July was a New England postcard, and the resort’s location high on a bluff offered him a bird’s eye view of the shoreline: lobster boats trawling off the rocky coast to the south; sandy beach curving in a crescent to the north.
“My family’s been coming here since the nineties,” Kate said. “I always dreamed of getting married right out in that gazebo.”
“And baby”—Mike engulfed her in his arms—“I’m here to make all your dreams come true.”
Ellie faked a finger down her throat, which made Ryan chuckle. She always tried to pretend she wasn’t sentimental, but he knew for a fact that she cried at commercials.
Now she narrowed her eyes at him, her stone-killer squint. Better than being ignored, but not as good as if she’d melted into his arms, sobbing that she couldn’t live another day without him and begging him never to leave again.
Ruefully, he realized he’d been hoping for exactly that reaction. He should’ve known better. Giving him what he wanted had never been on Ellie’s to-do list.
Instead, she marched to the sofa and vented her irritation on a pile of white satin, shaking it like a dog with a bone until it assumed the shape of a wedding dress.
Kate watched her with troubled eyes. “Ellie—”
Ellie spun around and aimed a finger at her. No words were exchanged, but Kate got the message. Wringing her hands, she turned to Julie. “So. How about some champagne?”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea—” Julie began.
“It’s brilliant,” Ellie cut in. “I’ll get it.” She jammed the dress onto a hanger and rammed it into the closet, then stomped out of the sitting room. Ryan heard cupboards slamming in the kitchenette.
“That went well,” he said to the room at large.
Kate offered a sympathetic smile. “I’m glad you’re here, Ry. Totally glad. But”—with a what the helllook at Mike—“a heads-up would’ve been nice.”
“Not Mike’s fault,” Ry cut in quickly. “Last minute decision. I was supposed to be on call all month, but I managed to get some leave.”
Not easy to do with the elevated threat level in L.A., but after last week’s disaster, his boss had declared that Ryan needed time off.
Maybe a lot of time.
But the upside was that he could be here when his brother married—married!—the woman who made him happier than even a lifetime of fast cars and faster women. Ryan was thrilled for him. He loved Kate too. So it was all good, right?
Wrong. Because apparently he was still inlove with Kate’s best friend.
Which sucked large.
After putting all of America between them for the last three years, and tucking half a dozen L.A. wanna-be starlets under his belt, he’d been sure he was completely over Ellie. But one glimpse of her and he wanted to live inside her light again.
That’s how he’d always felt, like the world was brighter around Ellie. Like the sun shone stronger and everything was hotter.
Especially the sex. Forget the starlets. His chemistry with Ellie was scorching. Even now, with the kitchen door closed between them, he could feel her heat on his skin—
Someone punched his arm, hard. He peeled his gaze off the door and met Julie’s narrowed green eyes.
Damn, she looked so much like—
“Don’t,” she growled, “tell me how much I look like Mom.”
“I mean it. You don’t get to talk about her, not to me. You lost that right when you left Boston.”
As if he’d had any choice. “She broke up with me, Jules. What was I supposed to do? Stick around and watch her with somebody else?”
Julie hard-eyed him. “You could’ve given her some time, Ry. She’d have come around.”
“She’d have come around, all right. She’d have come around Mike’s place with a new boyfriend.” It would’ve torn his heart out, what was left of it after she’d broken it to pieces. “She made it crystal clear that she didn’t want me. That I was nothing special.”
“Baloney. She was crazy about you.”
“Oh yeah?” His turn to be annoyed. “Then why did she throw my proposal back in my face?”
Julie’s mouth fell open. “You proposed? You actually asked Mom to marry you?”
“Yeah, I did,” Ryan said, feeling the sting like it was yesterday. “She told me I was too young for her, and she laughed at me for even thinking about marriage. I figured the rest of you got a laugh out of it too.”
“It’s not funny, Ry. It’s sad.”
Even worse. “I don’t need your pity—”
“Good, because you’re not getting it. I’m sad for Mom.”
“Wait, what?” That wasn’t fair. “I’ll say it again, Jules. Shedumpedme.”
“She’s allergic to commitment. You should know that about her.”
“Knowing it and curing her of it are two different things.” He’d tried. He’d even thought he succeeded. They were magic together. How could she not want that magic for the rest of their lives?
He looked away from Julie’s green eyes, so much like Ellie’s. How the hell was he gonna get through this weekend? He should’ve stayed in L.A., or headed to Cabo—
Ellie bustled out of the kitchen, tray of glasses in one hand, bottle of Moët in the other. Bending over to set everything on the coffee table, she gave him an excellent view of her excellent ass.
“God, she looks great,” he murmured. “Better than ever.”
“Better than ten minutes ago, for sure. Her cheeks are pinker. Her eyes are shooting sparks.”
“It’s her pissed-off face.” He knew it well.
Ellie twisted the cork and it exploded from the bottle. Champagne foamed out, spilling over her fingers. “Shit,” she sputtered, giving her hand a quick shake.
Then she proceeded to suck her fingers. Ry’s lungs collapsed, releasing a silent groan. She didn’t even know how sexy she was.
Longing must have been written on his face, because Julie sounded almost sympathetic. “Listen, Ry, I’m probably violating some kind of sacred mother/daughter code here, but you need to know—she ate her heart out after you left.”
He wanted to believe it, but… “Not possible. She said—”
“Forget what she said three years ago. Think about her reaction right now, today. You said it yourself, she’s pissed off, right? But we both know she doesn’t get pissed at her exes. She just”—Julie fluttered her fingers—“lets them go.”
That was true. He’d seen it happen to other poor schmucks before he got involved with her.
“But you, Ryan Murphy,” Julie added with another arm punch for emphasis, “she never let go of.”
* * *
Ellie let a long, icy swallow of champagne slide down her throat.
She wasn’t usually a chugger, but as of five minutes ago she’d decided the weekend would look a lot better through the bottom of a wineglass.
Kate came up beside her. “Thanks for that moving toast,” she said dryly, snatching the bottle from Ellie’s hand.
“Oh please. You’ll get plenty of fanfare this weekend without me fawning over you.”
“I knew I should’ve asked Carol to be my matron of honor.”
“It’s not too late. I can pack in ten minutes, be back in Boston for supper.”
“You wish. And it wouldn’t matter, anyway. He’d be right behind you.”
Kate snorted. “You’re the genius. Figure it out.” She filled two flutes and went off to play slap and tickle with Mike.
Ellie glugged another long swallow.
“Mom,” Julie called from across the room. She mimed a drinking motion with one hand.
Ellie made a Do I have to wait on everybodyface back at her.
Julie gave her an exaggerated Yeah you donod.
Caving in to the inevitable, Ellie poured two more glasses, reluctantly abandoned her own glass on the coffee table, and strode smartly toward her daughter, pretending to ignore the two hundred pounds of heartache standing alongside her.
Julie snatched a glass with a snide, “It’s about time.”
“I’m so sorry,” Ellie sweetly replied, “I didn’t realize your legs were broken or I would’ve rushed right over.”
Ryan accepted his with a much more gracious, “Thanks, Ellie.”
She spared him a cool nod, but the deep, familiar rumble of his voice triggered a fevered response all the way to her core.
She turned away, meaning to douse it but good with another frosty slug of champagne, but Julie caught her hand and held onto it. “I was just about to fill Ry in on the schedule of events,” she said.
“There’s a schedule?” That deep rumble again, with a startled lilt at the end.
“I’ll email it to you,” Julie said. “But here’s the quick and dirty. Seven-thirty dinner tonight at Magnolia’s for the wedding party—”
He held up a large, calloused hand. “Who else is in the wedding party?”
“Well, there’s Mike and Kate, of course. And you and mom.”
“Just the four of us?”
Ellie made the mistake of meeting his eyes. Lord, they were blue. And they were all over her.
Well, actually they were staring deeply into hers, but it felt like he was taking her in all at once, absorbing every part of her and stripping her naked while he was at it. She was hyper-aware of him too, from chiseled jaw to the hard body she knew as intimately as her own, now hiding under a faded t-shirt and jeans.
She unlocked eyes with him. “About dinner,” she said to Julie. “I told Kate that you and Cody want to come.”
Julie’s eyes popped. “I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to. I knew you felt left out. Your sister too. So I took care of it.” She patted Julie’s arm. “I always take care of my girls.”
And with that, she slipped her hand free from her daughter’s and beat a—sedate, measured—retreat across the room to her glass.
Behind her, she heard Julie complaining to Ryan. “There go the only two waking hours of the weekend I would’ve had alone with my husband. Thanks a lot for that.”
“Me?” Ry said in that mesmerizing voice.
“She doesn’t want to be alone with you,” Julie informed him.
That was the God’s honest truth. Ellie shuddered at the thought. Kate and Mike would be all over each other, leaving her to make conversation with Ry. What if he told her he was seeing someone? In love? Engaged!
She took a pull on her flute. She’d be glad for him, of course. He was young, healthy, virile…
She fanned herself, threw an accusing glance at the air conditioning vent.
Anyway, yeah, he was all that, so she’d definitely be happy for him if he’d finally found a girl his age—meaning someone at least nine years younger than herself. That’s what he needed, not a cougar like her.
Fun and games, well, that was one thing. She and Ry had had plenty of those. But that was before he’d lost his mind and proposed, spouting nonsense about love and destiny.
Honestly. They’d been good together, sure. Deliciously good.
But Destined To Be Together? No way. She’d given Destiny a try thirty years ago, and that bitch had ripped her heart out and run it through a meat grinder, then shoved it back in her chest and expected her to get on with her life.
She’d done her best. Survived. Even managed to enjoy it.
But a wound like that never healed. You just learned to live with the pain.
So no, she wouldn’t be giving Destiny another chance to gut her. That was the whole reason she made a point of dating younger men, so she wouldn’t get serious about them. So that even if someone like Ry came along to tempt her, vanity would keep her from giving in to temptation. Because really, who wanted to grow old ten years before her husband? To sag, and wrinkle up, and watch her hair go thin while he was still strong and vital and handsome?
Not Ellie Marone. She’d make that long, slow decline on her own, thank you very much. And when she died, she wouldn’t leave behind a husband to face the world alone.
Or worse yet, to face it with a twenty-four-year-old blonde on his arm—
A finger tapped her shoulder. “What time should I pick you up?” Ry said from about two inches behind her.
She giant-stepped forward before turning to answer him. “I don’t need a ride.”
He smiled, putting a dimple in his left cheek.
She loved that dimple.
“Then you can drive me,” he said.
“Nobody’s driving anybody. The restaurant’s two blocks from here.”
“So we can walk over together.”
“I don’t want to walk with you.”
“Your legs are too long. And you think everything’s a race.”
His smile widened. She noticed his front tooth was chipped. How did that happen? She set her jaw, refusing to ask.
“I promise to walk as slow as you want.”
“You always say that, then you lope along like a cheetah.”
“Maybe I’ve changed.”
She looked him up and down. At thirty-nine, he was all hard muscle on the outside, hard-won confidence on the inside. His stance, his expression, everything about him spelled powerful with a capital P.
“Well, you’re scrawnier,” she deadpanned, “but I doubt that’ll slow you down.”
He crossed his arms so his biceps stood out like grapefruit. Allowed her a minute to absorb their awesomeness. “I could walk backwards.”
Great. Instead of watching his butt pull ahead of her, she’d see his face the whole time.
Face. Arms. Butt. She didn’t want to see any of it!
She hardened her resolve. “Walk on your hands, for all I care. But you’re not walking with me.”