From This Day Forward

From This Day Forward

Dana Ransom

November 2014 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-812

Can two broken hearts make a perfect match?

 
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Widowed on her honeymoon, Robyn Lee pours all her unfulfilled dreams of a happily-ever-after into her wedding planner business, hiding her own heartbreak by making perfect memories for couples beginning the loving future she was denied. The last thing she needs is for the brother of her dream client—whose endorsement will guarantee Robyn’s success—to rock the boat . . . and her regimented world.
Through the lens of his camera, photojournalist Kyle Travers has witnessed all the ugliness life can offer. Still reeling from the death of his coworker in the field, he sees the frilly job of photographer at his sister’s wedding as an annoyance—until he meets the steely organizer who protects her broken spirit almost as fiercely as he does his own—making him wonder if two fractured halves can make a stronger whole.

Nancy Gideon, writing as Dana Ransom, is the award-winning author of over 55 romances in a number of genres including historical, contemporary suspense, and paranormal. She works full time as a legal assistant in Southwestern Michigan, and when not at the keyboard, feeds a Netflix addiction along with all things fur, fin, and fowl. She’s also written under the pen names Rosalyn West and Lauren Giddings.

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Excerpt

 

Chapter One

"MORBID? IS THAT what you think?”

"Now, Robyn, that’s not what I said.” Connie Baines made her re­sponse sound casual, but her gaze shrewdly assessed her daughter. That’s exactly what she thought, but Robyn wasn’t ready to hear it, not from her. "All I said is you should slow down a little. You haven’t had a chance to take a deep breath for the last eight months... a chance to think.”

"Think?” Robyn laughed. The sound was fragile as shattering crys­tal. "Mom, I’ve been thinking so much I wish there was a way to add another few gigs of RAM between my ears.”

"That’s not what I meant and you know it. You’re filling yourself up with busy work.”

"It’s my work, Mom, and somebody’s got to do it. Besides, I’m enjoy­ing it. You know I’ve always dreamed of having my own business. It won’t run itself.”

"But it’s running you to a frazzle. When was the last time you ate breakfast, or lunch, or a decent dinner?”

"Mom...”

"Don’t ‘Mom’ me, Robby. You’re so thin your customers are going to mistake you for one of those mannequins. There’s a fine line between fashionable and skeletal, and you’re about to cross it.”

"Now that is morbid.” She smiled as if her mother was making a fed­eral case out of a mild misdemeanor, but all she had to do was turn sideways to prove it was true. She was rail thin. Her delicate bone struc­ture had taken on dramatic new angles. She’d started to wear belts to give her clothes the illusion of fullness... and to literally keep them on her. She hadn’t weighed herself. She didn’t dare. She had enough on her mind without adding the worry that she’d slip through one of the sidewalk grates on her way home from work. So she made light of her mother’s fear while pushing it from own thoughts at the same time.

"Robyn, you need to take care of yourself. That’s all I’m saying.”

"I am, Mom. The same way you took care of things after Dad died. I’m getting on with my life. I’m building something for myself. I’ve given myself goals. I’m doing something I always wanted to do, and I’m mak­ing a success of it. What was I supposed to do? Sit home wailing on the couch, going from soap opera to soap opera until all the wasted hours filled in my day? Would that be healthy? Well, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t stand those four walls for another second. Life goes on, whether you like it or not, and forgive me for trying to make the best of it.”

She scooped up the stack of catalogs she’d been sorting through and whisked them into the other room. Connie watched her without comment. She might have believed the tough act, might have even ap­plauded the heroic sentiment, if she hadn’t seen helpless fluttering of her daughter’s hands. If she hadn’t seen the frantic, almost angry light that came into her eyes whenever they got close to the subject of her future. Connie knew the message. Butt out, leave me alone, I don’t want to talk about it. But her daughter was much too polite to make such an ugly confronta­tional scene, withdrawing instead behind her flip replies, behind her calm defenses until Connie was almost sick with concern.

Because life hadn’t gone on for Robyn Lee. It had stopped the day some careless driver had snatched the future from her. It had frozen in time when she’d come home alone from her honeymoon to make arrange­ments for a funeral by calling down the list of names that a week before had comprised her wedding party. All the things that symbolized life; laughter, tears, joy, and sorrow were shut down in an instant, buried alongside Eugene Lee.

"So, was there something else you wanted to talk about, other than my shameful eating habits?”

Connie hesitated. Yes, there was, but again she found herself wonder­ing if this was the right time. She’d been putting it off, knowing she shouldn’t. Her mother’s instincts were honed to protect, and what­ever brave bluff Robyn might choose to hide behind, Connie knew her daughter was terribly vulnerable. Robyn was her only child. She’d spent her entire life trying to shelter her from life’s little hurts. This was no little wound. This was nothing she could heal with a gentle kiss and a Band-Aid. And perhaps she was doing her daughter no favor at all by trying to soften the inevitable blow. Maybe it was just what Robyn needed—the shock to show her that life could, indeed, and should go on.

"Robby, I’m getting remarried.”

Robyn had been filing some loose papers. She went still. Finally, she closed the drawer to the cabinet and turned. Her features were carefully controlled.

"What?”

Connie smiled hopefully, but she could see the paralysis of disbelief on her daughter’s face. "I’d like you to help me with the arrangements.”

"To whom?”

"Stan Kuriansky. You’ve met Stan. You said you liked him, remem­ber.”

Robyn took a drowning breath and managed a faint, "Isn’t this ra­ther sudden?”

Connie blushed. Just like a young bride-to-be. And Robyn went tense all over.

"Not really. Stan and I have been dating off and on for almost two years. It just started getting more serious over the holidays—”

"I meant isn’t it rather soon to be taking another husband?”

Connie recognized all the signs of her daughter’s distress. The taut edge to her voice, the very proper diction, the way her dark eyes nar­rowed ever so slightly. "Robyn,” she said with a gentle forcefulness, "your father’s been gone for over three years.”

"Yes, but—” Robyn broke off. For a moment, her eyes swam with frustrated tears. Then she blinked and swallowed hard, gulping for stabil­ity. "It’s just such a surprise. I thought what you and Dad had was the perfect marriage, the kind I always hoped—I’d have.”

Connie got up off the side chair and started around her daughter’s desk. She’d thought to extend an embrace, but Robyn was hugging her­self within the denying circle of her own arms, so she held back instead, trying to reach her with reassuring words.

"It was a wonderful marriage. I loved your father very much and I still miss him, I still think about him. But Robby, I’m only fifty-four. Hardly ancient. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone.”

"You have your work—”

"From nine to five. It doesn’t comfort me in the evenings or smile at me across the breakfast table or, heaven forbid, leave whiskers in the bathroom sink. I miss sharing my life with a man, and no amount of overtime is going to replace that. Stan is—”

"When are you going to get married?” Robyn cut in suddenly. She had no desire to hear what Stan Kuriansky was to her mother. She didn’t want to think about him sharing Connie Baines’s evenings, her break­fast, or shaving over her father’s sink.

Yes, her mother was still young and attractive; a striking mature woman who modestly colored her hair and wore tailored suits to the envy of most thirty-year-olds. When her husband had died of unex­pected heart failure, she’d thrown herself back into the work force after a twenty-five year absence, competing with much younger talent as she earned her CPA license. She didn’t let age or fear or grief get in the way of building a successful firm where she now had a staff of four beneath her. Robyn had grown up using her mother as role model for the perfect wife and mother. And now, as the perfect business success. No, Robyn wouldn’t deny her happiness, but a part of her rebelled against the no­tion that her mother would replace her father’s memory with another man.

Connie watched her daughter’s face, trying to decipher the subtle shifts of emotion hiding behind her well-bred manner. She proceeded with care. "We’re not rushing into anything. I just thought it was time we included you in our plans.”

Oh, well thank you very much, Robyn thought with a fierce confusion of heart and mind. Thank you for dropping this particular bomb in my lap just now when I’m trying so hard... She clenched her teeth to hold the words at bay. She had no right to be resentful of the choices her mother made. They were both adults with their own homes, their own careers, their own lives. Still...

"Well, if there’s no hurry, can we talk another time? I’ve got some­one coming in for their first consultation in about fifteen minutes.”

Connie knew she was getting the brush off, but she didn’t mind it. Not as much as she minded the thought of her daughter’s panic. Robyn was overreacting in her own understated way. Maybe it was just the surprise. Maybe she’d adjust to the idea and things would be fine. Maybe.

"Well,” Connie announced with a forced cheer as she reached for her purse, "I’ll let you get back to work. I’ll give you a call later. Okay?”

"Sure, Mom. Fine.” And Robyn leaned one porcelain-pale cheek for­ward for her mother’s fond kiss.

"I want you to be happy for me, Robby.”

"I am, Mom. For you and Stan.” That was said with a smile as sin­cere as someone cheating on their tax returns. "I don’t mean to hurry you, but—”

"Take some time out for lunch, young lady.”

"Mom,” she groaned as she directed the older woman to the door. "I’m twenty-seven not seven.”

"I don’t care if you’re one hundred and seven. If I want to fuss, it’s my right as a mother.”

"Fuss all you want,” Robyn surrendered with a small smile. She held open the outer shop door to a cold Detroit winter wind.

"Don’t forget to set aside a time for me to go over your books. The last thing you want is Uncle Sam rummaging through your wallet.”

"I’m sure I can count on you to keep me walking the financial straight and narrow.”

"I’ll call.” It was almost a warning.

"Okay, Mom. Geez, would you get going. You’re not paying the heat bills around here.”

"Eat.”

"Yes, ma’am. I’ve got egg salad in the fridge. See you later.” And she firmly shut the door on the chill she felt both inside and out.

Taking a deep, composing breath, Robyn started getting things ready for her meeting with Judy Travers. The bride-to-be was exactly the type of client she needed to anchor her business; rich society, hopelessly disorganized, and willing to pay dearly for someone to take over the responsibility of planning her wedding. This Perfect Day had been started with her in mind. The store had been open for six months and was doing a modest trade, enough to keep Robyn occupied as a bridal consultant while she learned the business ropes. Coordinating and coun­seling filled her weekday hours, and weekends were a dawn to pre-daylight blur of activity. Exactly what she needed despite what her mother thought. She’d have gone crazy if she hadn’t had the shop to pour heart and soul into.

Funny, how dreams could be fulfilled. What she had was just what she’d imagined when a design and business major in college. She’d worked doing alterations in a department store bridal salon to help foot the cost of her education, and while stitching on those slippery silks and elegant satins, she’d planned out to the teeniest detail how her own store would look. Of course, those were just dreams. There was no money for such a risky investment. She’d thought about starting small and building a clientele, maybe while working out of her home. Then her dad had died and his loss sent shock waves through her secure life.

And there was Gene and his plans. He’d had such great projections for what their life would become. It had been so easy to let him take charge of her dreams, to mold them into a future they would share. He was going for his MD; a noble pursuit, much more worthy of her time and efforts than sewing lace and measuring hems. Everything was chan­neled into him getting his degree and to his future in medicine. He’d done his internship across the country, and while he was gone, she worked two jobs, saving every penny so they could have a home of their own when he returned and they were married. Things were so focused, so certain, right down to the neighborhood they’d live in, the kind of car they’d drive, when they’d have their first of two children. Everything she wanted, she had in Gene Lee. And then he was gone.

Funny, she thought looking back. Maybe it would seem morbid to some, but to her, it was such an irony. She could remember it so clearly.

"Why do you need so much life insurance?” she’d chided her then fi­ancé. "Gene, you’re going to live to be one hundred and so am I.” She had no reason not to believe that. They were both in great shape with no unhealthy vices. He’d been in football and soccer. She’d played tennis and ate yogurt. They jogged together religiously. They wore their seat belts. They locked their doors. But none of that had mattered when a distracted tourist missed his turn and cut in front of Gene’s rented com­pact car.

By the time the insurance settled, Robyn had the site for This Perfect Day picked out in an upscale area. She’d paid the first year’s rent and came in the next day to start painting. As soon as she was properly li­censed and had taken care of a sign permit, zoning and insurance, she ordered her marque. Her own business. Her own dream. She’d been planning it subconsciously for years, and it all came together in a remarka­bly short span of time. She knew exactly what color she wanted the carpet, where she’d place the mannequins, how she wanted the consul­tation area arranged. She ordered stock and office equipment, and assoon as she had business cards ready, she began making the rounds to area vendors. If it hadn’t been for all the visits to local restaurants and bakeries to sample their products, she probably wouldn’t have eaten at all.

She’d been patient. It had taken almost a month for her to book her first wedding. She attended a couple of bridal shows and was suddenly comfortably scheduled through July. With Judy Travers came her first step up into a ritzy social circle where word of mouth would assure her future. If she did a good job.

And she planned to make sure everything was perfect.

A friend had given Judy her card after the season’s first bridal show. They’d talked on the phone long enough for Judy to admit she was in desperate need of help and that her guest list would probably be close to five hundred. That meant a retainer of $5000 on top of her 15% fee off the total cost of the wedding. She’d probably net at least $25,000 helping Judy Travers down the aisle, and once her name got circulating through the posh country clubs of Grosse Point Woods and St. Clair Shores, her success would be set.

But first she had to make a confident first impression. This was not the day for her mother to come in and shake her to the foundations with her Big News.

Robyn swept her shop with a critical eye. The consultation area with its comfy couch and chair, and inviting coffee maker beckoned, the shelves running a rainbow of colors in all the latest wedding products enticed, the mannequins garbed in full fantasies of lace and chiffon entranced. Out of sight, in the next room, was her office where overflow storage shelves groaned under the weight of catalogs and extra supplies, where her desk overran with pages of figures needing to be entered onto new organizing software. Where egg salad from two weeks ago sat un­touched in the mini-refrigerator next to the bottled spring waters. Where she wished she could hole up for a good month or two behind a super economy-sized box of tissue and cry her eyes out over the prospect of losing her mother, her best friend. But of course, she wouldn’t.

She hadn’t cried since her father’s funeral and wasn’t about to now, not on the verge of the most important interview of her business career.

Tell that to the achiness rising up in her throat and to the itchy burn behind her eyes.

Casting an anxious glance out the plate glass window to the empty parking spots in front of her store, she decided she had a few more minutes to affect a calm recovery. Valium would have helped. Or a fifth of good Scotch. But she didn’t have and had never tried either, so she settled for splashing cold water on her face in the tiny restroom. With toweling fluttering in her hands, she remembered her promise to locate a catalog highlighting Eve of Milady gowns. Only she wasn’t sure where she’d put it. The part-time student she’d hired to help in her office had turned it into a disorganized disaster in the course of three short weeks. She had yet to figure why the girl would equate a huppah with a Polish wedding or officiant fees with catering. She was sorting through the mess as she put everything from notebook to hard drive, but it was a slow process when she had a rare spare moment. If only she hadn’t been so trusting of those big eager eyes.

If only her mother hadn’t picked today as the day to destroy her secu­rity.

Through the aggravating sheen distorting her vision, Robyn spotted a stack of periodicals on the top storage shelf. The spine of one looked like the missing catalog of bridal gowns. She looked around for some­thing to climb on; the top shelf was nestled up neatly near the ceiling. Grabbing the back of her desk chair, she rolled it over and wedged it up against the shelving unit. Determinedly, she stepped up onto the seat, her heels sinking into the spongy padding. As she started to reach up, stretching onto her toes, the chair gave a precarious quiver, and she gripped the shelf supports until a shift in her position brought a return of balance. She reached again and the set of casters creaked. The maga­zine she wanted was on top. When her fingertips brushed it, it skidded off the pile and farther out of reach. Sighing with aggravation, she pushed her sleeve across her misty eyes then groped blindly along the high shelf. She’d just brushed the edge when she heard the shop door open.

"Be with you in a minute,” she called out in a strained voice. Just a lit­tle farther. Just a little more. Her fingernails skidded on glossy cover stock. Almost. If she had another inch of reach.

Putting her foot onto the arm of the chair, she gave a little hop, smil­ing in success as she caught the magazine. Then there was the sharp crack of laminated wood separating under duress, and the arm of the chair gave way. The stack of magazines came tumbling down, just as she came tumbling down. She gasped as one strong arm snagged her about the waist and another braced over the top of her head to ward off the avalanche of catalogs. Too stunned to react, she allowed her savior to lift her down from the chair to secure carpeting. And to continue holding her for just a moment too long against a frame that was long and firm and definitely disconcerting. Finally, Robyn found the presence of mind to move away.

"Thank you,” she began to stammer in embarrassment. "I’m not usu­ally such a klutz...”

Everything else she’d meant to say died somewhere down in her throat as she turned and found herself lost in the greenest eyes she’d ever seen.


 

 

Chapter Two

HE WAS THE ONE mothers warned about.

Trouble spelled M-A-L-E.

Robyn recognized it in an instant. His every feature spoke it clear. His tousled dark hair stated he couldn’t be bothered with how he looked when he knew damn well he was good-looking. His wide white smile was an invitation to a night a woman would remember long after he’d forgotten her name... if he ever bothered to ask for it. His was a face full of odd symmetry and strong lines lending intriguing character rather than typical handsomeness, brow permanently furrowed, nose crooked, mouth a lazy twist of cynicism from which a cigarette dangled with the irreverence of a ‘50s delinquent. No, she wouldn’t call him handsome. Dangerous was more like it, with a bad boy allure females found so sexy. And what she found, held close to his masculine form, was a startled thrum of unwanted awareness.

Before she could begin to deny her anticipation-triggered pulse, he tripped it with a drawling speech.

"You should know better than to go mountain climbing in that kind of foot gear. You could have broken your pretty little neck or bruised parts equally attractive.” And he grinned again, starting slow and never letting up, like a tidal wave of sensuality washing over her.

"All my parts are just fine, thank you.” The frosty chill of her voice had no effect. He continued to hold her tight within the casual loop of his arm. Casual, it may have been, but breaking from a band of steel would have been easier. "You can let me go now, thank you.”

"I expected a more enthusiastic thank you.”

"But you won’t get one.” Her hands rose to push against his chest. He was made hard. And her heart thudded an unsettled beat.

Her cool demeanor and indignation didn’t earn her release. It was the sight of the gold circle on the third finger of her left hand. He stepped away, retreating behind an impassive front just as a voice called from the other room, "Kyle? Where on earth did you go?”

"In here, Ju.”

A lovely woman in a white lynx coat peered into Robyn’s office, tak­ing in the clutter of magazines scattered all over the floor and Robyn’s stiff pose. Delicate brows lifted above the frames of her dark glasses and she shook her head. "Kyle, I can’t leave you alone for two seconds, can I? Mrs. Lee, I’m Judy Travers. I hope he hasn’t given you any unnecessary grief.”

Robyn put one and one together in a hurried scramble and came up with the bride and groom-to-be. Her green-eyed rescuer was her client’s future husband. With relief and an odd regret she didn’t care to study too closely, she forced a calm smile, wishing she could turn the clock back to the start of this dreadful day to do things differently. Like not letting her mother in. Like not using a chair on wheels as a step-stool. Like not drowning in a seducing sea of green.

"Why don’t we go into the other room? It’s more comfortable there. And please, call me Robyn.”

As she left her office behind the happy couple she hoped to guide to­ward that final walk down the aisle, Robyn was provoked by a sudden irritation. How dare the man come on to her like that with his fiancée just a few steps behind him! She was used to men flirting with her, even the married ones. Usually, she took it as an annoyance more than as a capital offense. But this man, with his insinuating smile and intense stare, had quickened a response she didn’t want to recognize. A no-holds- barred man-woman response that warmed all the way down like that first sip of fine liquor and pooled hot, leaving her breathless and gasping. And that was the last thing she wanted to feel for any man, and especially not for a man on his way to the altar with someone else. One look, one touch, and her knees had gone all quivery. And it made her mad as hell.

"There’s no smoking in the shop.”

He turned those soul-melting eyes on her then drew in deliberately and exhaled a thin stream of smoke from the opposite corner of his mouth. "What?”

"I’m sorry. No smoking. It gets in the fabrics.”

He challenged her with an unblinking stare until she looked away, un­settled.

"There’s an ashtray by the door,” she began.

"I’ll finish it outside.”

"Kyle,” Judy Travers moaned in exasperation. "Don’t be a brat.” But he stalked out as if he hadn’t heard her, exiting on a cold rush of air. She looked back at Robyn with a rueful smile. "Excuse him. He’s going through his second childhood.”

Robyn smiled back thinly. "Why don’t you have a seat and we can do some talking.”

As Judy moved toward the comfortable grouping of furniture, Robyn cast a glance toward the figure hunched down in his winter coat, stomping back and forth on the icy sidewalk while puffing steam like a locomotive. And she felt sorry for Judy Travers. The man was ill-mannered and far from what she’d call prime husband material. But, he wasn’t her problem.

Judy slipped out of her plush coat and sun glasses, and perched on the edge of the couch, as nervous as any expectant bride, all anxious smiles as Robyn approached.

"Well, what do we do first?”

On familiar ground, Robyn relaxed and let her natural profes­sional­ism take control. She assumed a seat in the chair facing her excited client, making her attitude one of ‘how can I help?’ rather than ‘here’s what we’re going to do.’

"Let’s talk a little about what kind of a wedding you want to have, and then we’ll decide on what you need me to do to make everything perfect for you. I can take care of one or two of the big things, or I can do it all, start to finish. Whatever you want.”

Judy exhaled, and the crisp society front collapsed as she sagged within the couch’s embrace. "Oh, you don’t know what a relief that is. I’m stuck heading up a bunch of special projects at work, and then I’ve got to make all the arrangements for housing and a move. We’re relocat­ing to Jacksonville right after the wedding. My parents are wintering down south, so they’re no help. Anything you can do will be wonderful. Right now, if I could get you to put on the dress and walk down the aisle with him, I’d ask you to do that, too.”

Mental pictures ran like a brushfire all out of control; the sultry-eyed Kyle waiting at the front of the church, taking up her hand, rolling back her veil, bending to place what she knew would be a scorching kiss upon her anticipating lips. An odd quiver ran through Robyn, a fevered long­ing. And that scared her enough to give her mind a firm shake. But her hands were shaking too, rattling her even more. She looked at Judy Travers in a panic. Was she going to be forced to turn down this ca­reer-making job because she got all clammy-palmed over the groom? No, of course she wasn’t. And right then, Robyn took a tight grip on her scattered emotions. She absolutely refused to take another look out her front window, where a stubborn man preferred the risk of hypothermia and lung cancer to politeness, and took a cleansing breath.

"Let’s get started. If you want a June wedding, we’re going to have to work fast. Most reservations for that month are usually made up to a year in advance, but we’ll do the best we can.”

Judy looked to her through big trusting eyes—green eyes. "You’ve got the helm, Scotty. What do we do first?”

Robyn laid out her fees and method of payment, and Judy had no qualms about reaching into her designer purse to jot out a quick check for $1,500. Feeling as if she was sealing her fate with the acceptance of that retainer, Robyn forged on with aconfidence only slightly strained by circumstance.

"First, we need to establish your planning budget and prioritize the things that are the most important to you: the reception, the meal, the dress, the honeymoon.” Her voice tripped up on that, and she cleared her throat determinedly. "Would you like some coffee?”

"That would be great. I wish I’d brought a bag lunch.”

"I’d offer you something, but all I’ve got in the back is leftover egg salad and I’d hate to poison a client.”

Judy grinned, quickening an easy rapport between them. Too bad the groom was such a jerk. Otherwise, she’d truly enjoy working with this particular bride. The flustered sentiments momentarily misled her. Judy Travers was no simple ditz. She was a young woman overwhelmed by a lot of heavy responsibilities, and planning a wedding pushed them over the top. That’s where This Perfect Day could take up the slack.

"Here you go. It’s hot. Would he like some?” Robyn nodded to­ward the sidewalk.

"Let him cool down awhile longer. He’s been a bear all morning. Be­sides, he’s not really interested in this stuff.”

Not interested. Robyn felt her features freeze up. Great. A bride drowning in details and a groom who couldn’t care less. She sat down and opened her notebook, preparing mentally for the difficult task of civility toward Judy’s other half.

"All right. Here’s what we have to do.”

Judy leaned forward, all eager attention.

"We find out what’s most important to you so if we have to make some cuts, it won’t be so painful.”

"Don’t worry about that. The one thing I do have plenty of is money. I wish I had an equal amount of time.”

"Okay, then we need to make up a division of expenses; who pays for what. I’ve got a traditional list we can go by and you can make any changes you like. Our biggest priority is booking a site for the ceremony and the reception. June runneth over with brides and we don’t want you walking down the aisle of some supermarket.”

Judy grinned again and that smile exuded confidence.

"Then, we have to decide on what type of wedding you’d like and the degree of formality. With 500 guests, I’m assuming you’re going formal.”

"To the hilt. My mother wants it to rival a royal affair, without the me­dia coverage. Of course, she’d like that, too, but it’s not one of my priorities.”

"We need to select the bridal party, divide up the guest list for either side of the family and reserve a caterer, florist, photographer, music, limo, and order your gown.”

Judy gulped. "We’re going to do all that today? Maybe I should have brought three bag lunches.”

"We’ll do the basics today. I can start making calls to see what’s availa­ble and we can get back together at the end of the week. How does that sound?”

"Great. I’m at your mercy. All I know is it’s going to be big, expen­sive and a royal pain in the a—neck.”

"Better my—ummm, neck than yours.”

"You’ll get no argument there. All I know about weddings is some­thing borrowed, something blue, and you can never wear the bridesmaid’s dress anywhere again. All I know is I’m only planning to have one and I want it to be—”

"Perfect,” Robyn concluded.

"Yes.”

"Let me take care of it, Judy. It will be.”

And she smiled, suffering that little pang of melancholy deep inside as she observed the other young woman’s thrill of expectation. She would do everything she could to insure a perfect moment for Judy and Kyle. Every bride deserved that one slice in time, because from that point on, nothing was certain.

"There is one thing I’ve already decided on, if it’s all right with you.”

"It’s your wedding. What did you have in mind?”

"I’ve asked my brother if he’d do the photography. He’s good with a thirty-five millimeter, digital, and a videocam.”

Robyn tried to swallow down her dismay. It was her experience that family experts lent nothing to the occasion but trouble. Unless they were bona fide professionals in that field, an amateur hobbyist was a nuisance to work with and around. She’d had someone’s Aunt Flo singing off-key during the processional, someone’s Cousin Jim do the catering and ended up with soggy finger sandwiches and three cases of mild ptomaine from his shrimp dip. Uncle Fred might be good with a cell phone, but his formal portraits of the bridal party where so dark the faces were indistinguishable. The bride cried for days because all she had for memo­ries were ghostly blurs in her photo book.

Give her a reputable vendor any day over the eager services of an un­skilled relative. They were an unknown variable at a time when everything had to be dependable. She worked too hard to preserve an image of grace and solemnity to have it ruined by one overzealous, get in the way volunteer. With hired services, she could be an intermediary, judging the merits of past work and firing without care to feelings or friendships. She had control, but she also bore the brunt of any mishaps whether she arranged for them or not. If someone’s botanist grand­mother showed up with wilted lilies and crumpled ribbons, no one blamed the bride or groom for soliciting her help. They blamed the one in charge, and Robyn had no intention of letting her reputation be frayed in such a fashion.

"Oh, Judy, what a nice sentiment,” she began with a placating smile. "It would add a personal touch if he took candids as a supplemental source, but for a wedding the size you’re planning, I’d really have to push for someone who knows what they’re doing. I have a list of very reputa­ble photographers who’ll give you exactly what you want to remember when you look back on your wedding day. You have to have someone who can shoot portraits and group shots as well as handle the confusion of the reception. A good photographer has to be invisible.”

"Oh, he can handle all that.”

Robyn had a sinking feeling that she was going to end up working with some intrusive home movie buff who blundered tactlessly into every tender moment she arranged. Accepting it took a heroic amount of effort. "Judy, I wish you’d reconsider.”

"Trust me, Robyn. He’ll do a great job. But he doesn’t work cheap.”

She had a glimmer of hope that the man was a professional. "Does he have a studio in the area?” Oh, please, say he has a studio in the area and not just a favorite One-Hour grocery store kiosk where he drops off his film.

Judy hedged and all Robyn’s hopes caved in without a whimper. "Well, no. Actually, he’s on a leave of absence right now.”

Robyn prayed the end of the world didn’t show in her expression. Great, an unemployed relative who would annoy everyone and end up with countless overexposed, decapitated blurs.

"Really, he’ll be fine. And I really do want this, Robyn. It’s the only thing I’m going to stand firm on.”

Robyn got the impression from the way the young woman crossed her arms that when Judy Travers stood firm it would take more than a bulldozer to move her.

"All right,” Robyn conceded glumly. "Have your brother come in so we can go over the details. I’ll need to know what kind of equipment he has access to.” Hopefully more than a quick shot model with no extra trimmings.

"You can ask him yourself.” Judy turned at the sound of the front door opening with its cheerful jangle. Cold air gushed in and Robyn’s body temperature plunged ten degrees along with it. With a sudden dreadful insight, she connected the seeming coincidence of Judy’s green eyes with those of the snowy figure stamping in from the outdoors. Oh, no...

"Kyle, Robyn’s agreed to let you take the pictures.”

Their eyes met across the distance—hers dark distraught circles, his disinterested jewel-like slits.

"Terrific,” he muttered.

Terrific, Robyn echoed with a matching gloom.

"WELL, WHAT DID you think of her?”

Kyle Travers slumped in the passenger seat of his sister’s Mercedes and let his eyes close. "I didn’t know my opinion mattered.”

She thumped his upper arm. "Quit being such a grump. You prom­ised to get me through this, remember?”

"A promise made under extreme duress. You were torturing me with Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. How’s a man supposed to react reasonably when put through that kind of sentimental wringer?”

She grinned at him. "He’s not. That’s what I was counting on.”

"Who’s the brat in this family?”

"Oh, I think it’s a toss-up. So... you didn’t answer my question.”

"What question might that be?”

"About Robyn Lee.”

"What about her?”

"What do you think?”

"I think she’s got nice legs.”

"That’s a real helpful observation.”

"Well, you asked.”

She negotiated a left turn through a packed intersection. One would never guess the Christmas rush was almost a month past. When it was safe to do so, she canted another look at the lounging figure strapped in beside her. Her emotions turned to the mushy consistency of warm Cream of Wheat.

"Kyle?”

"Ummm?” He didn’t move.

"I really appreciate this.”

"I know, Ju. I’d do anything in the world for you. You know that.”

The unexpected tenderness in his voice brought a clogging ache to her throat. She braked at the next light and ventured, "You know I love you, don’t you? Even if you are a tremendous jerk at times.”

His head rolled toward her and his eyes opened lazily. He puckered up and made a wet kissy sound that inspired a want to smack him and hug him all at once.

"You’re a creep,” she decided.

"Light’s green.”

She trod the accelerator hard enough to jerk him from his indolent pose. But the alertness lasted only a few blocks, then he was drifting. She was losing him again. She’d noticed it more and more often since bring­ing him home from the hospital. His stare glazed over, focusing on nothing, and everything shut down; like someone had yanked out the plug. A scary thing to watch. He’d sit and stare and his eyes would well up with tears he’d deny to his dying breath. Then a word, a touch would wake him from where ever it was he went behind that blank of anguish and he’d be himself again. At least, on the surface.

"Hey, Kyle?” Judy forced a light tone. No response. He wasn’t there. She punched his shoulder, trying to make the move playful when what she really wanted to do was grab onto him with a sister’s desperate concern. He blinked, once slowly, then several times in rapid succession. When he looked her way, his smile was a carefree curl and his brows an arch of inquiry. As if nothing was wrong.

"I don’t know what I’d do without you, big brother. With Tim over­seas, I’d be a basket case if you weren’t there to hold my hand.”

"Awww, shucks, glad to do it. You sure this guy’s good enough for you?”

"You ought to know. He’s your best friend.”

"That’s what’s got me worried.” And he gave her a grin that was full of hell and Judy could almost believe nothing had ever happened to him.

"I think Robyn’s going to do a great job.”

"Her again.” Kyle groaned and closed his eyes in an irritable disre­gard.

"You don’t think so?”

"Yeah, sure, if you want everything to go off with wind-up preci­sion. That woman doesn’t have a spontaneous bone in her body. I’m sure she has something in that big etiquette book that handles in delicate detail how to discreetly break wind during the ceremony.”

"I doubt it,” was his sister’s dry retort.

"Anyway, who cares if the tulle on the bride’s garter matches Grandma’s pumps? Does that spell social disaster?”

"My, aren’t you a grouch today. It’s not like anyone’s forcing you down the aisle.”

"Not without 455 horsepower and a logging chain come-along.”

"Not that any woman with a brain would want you.”

"Guess I’m safe with Mrs. Lee then, aren’t I?”

"Just what have you got against her? I thought she was very nice and helpful, too.”

"She’s too intense, stuck too rigidly on the traditional, and too much of a perfectionist.”

"In other words, too much like you.”

"Moi?

She smirked at his look of big-eyed innocence. "Put you behind a lens and the words intense, rigid perfectionist sums it up pretty neatly.”

He sniffed at that and turned to stare out the side window. "Well then, with me and the starched Mrs. Lee working in tandem, your wed­ding should go off without a hitch.”

"She’s not married. At least not anymore.” Judy mentioned that casu­ally and searched covertly for a reaction.

"What?”

"Robyn. The Mrs. is just a title. She told me she was living alone. She didn’t mention the particulars, just that there was no longer a Mr. Lee in her life.”

"Oh.” Said without inflection, a comment upon a fact that had no rel­evance.

If that were true, Judy thought wryly, why did her brother suddenly sit up in his seat with a pensive smile that bode misfortune for the proper Mrs. Robyn Lee.


 

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