Happy Ever After
( The Bride Quartet - 4 )
As the public face of Vows wedding planning company, Parker Brown has an uncanny knack for fulfilling every bride's vision. She just can't see where her own life is headed. Mechanic Malcolm Kavanaugh loves figuring out how things work, and Parker is no exception. Both know that moving from minor flirtation to major hook-up is a serious step. Parker's business risks have always paid off, but now she'll have to take the chance of a lifetime with her heart...
To my guys,
Bruce, Dan, Jason, and Logan
Love sought is good, but given unsought is better.
Beauty from order springs.
GRIEF CAME IN WAVES, HARD AND CHOPPY, BUFFETING AND BREAKING the heart. Other days the waves were slow and swamping, threatening to drown the soul.
People—good, caring people—claimed time would heal. Parker hoped they were right, but as she stood on her bedroom terrace in the late-summer sun, months after the sudden, shocking deaths of her parents, those capricious waves continued to roll.
She had so much, she reminded herself. Her brother—and she didn’t know if she’d have survived this grieving time without Del—had been a rock to cling to in that wide, wide ocean of shock and sorrow. Her friends Mac, Emma, Laurel, a part of her life, a part of her, since childhood. They’d been the glue mending and holding all the shattered pieces of her world. She had the constant, unshakable support of their longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Grady, her island of comfort.
She had her home. The beauty and elegance of the Brown Estate seemed deeper, sharper to her somehow, knowing she wouldn’t see her parents strolling through the gardens. She’d never again run downstairs and find her mother laughing in the kitchen with Mrs. G, or hear her father wheeling a deal in his home office.
Instead of learning to ride those waves, she’d felt herself being swept deeper and deeper down into the dark.
Time, she’d determined, needed to be used and pushed and moved.
She thought—hoped—she’d found a way, not only to use that time, but to celebrate what her parents had given her, to unite those gifts with family and friendships.
To be productive, she mused as the first spicy scents of coming autumn stirred the air.The Browns worked.They built and they produced and they never, never sat back to laze on accomplishments.
Her parents would have expected her to do no less than those who’d come before her.
Her friends might think she’d lost her mind, but she’d researched, calculated, and outlined a solid business plan, a sturdy model. And with Del’s help, a fair and reasonable legal contract.
Time to swim, she told herself.
She simply wouldn’t sink.
She walked back into the bedroom, picked up the four thick packets she’d set on her dresser. One for each of them for the meeting—though she hadn’t told her friends they were coming to a meeting.
She paused, took a moment to tie back her glossy brown hair in a tail, then simply stared into her own eyes, willing a spark to light in the deep blue.
She could make this work. No, no,
they could make this work.
She just had to convince them first.
Downstairs, she found Mrs. Grady putting the finishing touches on the meal.
The sturdy woman turned from the stove, gave her a wink. “Ready?”
“Prepared anyway. I’m nervous. Is it silly to be nervous? They’re my closest friends in the world.”
“It’s a big step you’re looking to take, a big one you’ll ask them to take.You’d be foolish if you weren’t a bit nervous.” She stepped over, took Parker’s face in her hands. “My money’s on you. Go on out. I’ve gone a little fancy, so you’ll have hors d’oeuvres and wine on the terrace. My girls are all grown up.”
She wanted to be, but God, there was a child inside her who wanted her mom and dad, the comfort, the love, the security.
Outside, she set the packets on a table, then crossed over to take the wine out of its cooler, pour herself a glass.
Then simply stood, holding the glass, looking out in the softening light over the gardens to the pretty little pond and the reflection of the willows mirrored on its surface.
“God! Do I want some of that.”
Laurel bolted out, her sunny blond hair brutally short—a new look her friend already regretted. She hadn’t changed out of her uniform from her position as dessert chef at an upscale local restaurant.
Her eyes, bright and blue, rolled as she poured her wine.“Who knew when I changed my schedule to make our Girl Night we’d get a last-minute lunch reservation for twenty? The kitchen was a mad-house all afternoon. Mrs. G’s kitchen now . . .” She let out a huge groan as she dropped down to sit after hours on her feet.“It’s an oasis of calm that smells like heaven.What’s for dinner?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Laurel waved it away.“But if Emma and Mac are late, I’m starting without them.” She spotted the stack of packets. “What’s all that?”
“Something that can’t start without them. Laurel, do you want to go back to New York?”
Laurel eyed her over the rim of her glass. “Are you kicking me out?”
“I guess I want to know what you want. If you’re satisfied with how things are.You moved back for me, after the accident, and—”
“I’m taking it a day at a time, and figure I’ll figure it out. Right now, not having a plan’s working for me. Okay?”
“Well . . .”
She broke off as Mac and Emma came out together, laughing.
Emma, she thought, so beautiful with her mass of hair curling madly, her dark, exotic eyes bright with fun. Mac, her bold red hair choppy in tufts, green eyes wickedly amused, lean and long in her jeans and black shirt.
“What’s the joke?” Laurel demanded.
“Men.” Mac set down the plates of brie en croute and spinach tartlets Mrs. Grady had shoved into her hands on the way through the kitchen. “The two of them who thought they could arm wrestle for Emma.”
“It was kind of sweet,” Emma insisted. “They were brothers and came into the shop for flowers for their mother’s birthday. One thing led to the other.”
“Guys come into the studio all the time.” Mac popped a sugared red grape into her mouth from the bowl already on the table.“None of them ever arm wrestle each other for a date with me.”
“Some things never change,” Laurel said, raising her glass to Emma.
“Some things do,” Parker spoke out. She had to start, had to move. “That’s why I asked you all to come tonight.”
Emma paused as she reached for the brie. “Is something wrong?”
“No. But I wanted to talk to you all, at once.” Determined, Parker poured wine for Mac and Emma. “Let’s sit down.”
“Uh-oh,” Mac warned.
“No uh-ohs,” Parker insisted.“I want to say first, I love you all so much, and have forever.And will forever.We’ve shared so much, good and bad. And when things were at their worst, I knew you’d be there.”
“We’re all there for each other.” Emma leaned over and laid a hand on Parker’s. “That’s what friends do.”
“Yes, it is. I want you to know how much you mean to me, and want you to know that if any of you don’t want to try what I’m about to propose, for any reason at all, it changes nothing between us.”
She held up a hand before anyone could speak. “Let me start this way. Emma, you want your own florist business one day, right?”
“It’s always been the dream. I mean I’m happy working in the shop, and the boss gives me a lot of leeway, but I hope, down the road, to have my own. But—”
“No buts yet. Mac, you’ve got too much talent, too much creativity to spend every day taking passport photos and posed kid shots.”
“My talent knows no bounds,” Mac said lightly,“but a girl’s got to eat.”
“You’d rather have your own photography studio.”
“I’d rather have Justin Timberlake arm wrestling Ashton Kutcher for me, too—and it’s just as likely.”
“Laurel, you studied in New York and Paris with the aim of becoming a pastry chef.”
“An international sensation of a pastry chef.”
“And you’ve settled for working at the Willows.”
She swallowed a bite of her spinach tart. “Well, hey—”
“Part of that settling was to be here for me after we lost Mom and Dad. I studied,” Parker continued,“with the goal of starting my own business. I always had an idea of what it would be, but it seemed like a pipe dream. One I never shared with any of you. But over these last months, it’s begun to feel more reachable, more right.”
“For Christ’s sake, Parker, what is it?” Laurel demanded.
“I want us to go into business together. The four of us, with each of us running our own end of it—according to our field of interest and expertise, while merging them together under one umbrella, so to speak.”
“Go into business?” Emma echoed.
“You remember how we used to play Wedding Day? How we’d all take turns playing parts, and wearing costumes, planning the themes.”
“I liked marrying Harold best.” Mac smiled over the memory of the long-departed Brown family dog. “He was so handsome and loyal.”
“We could do it for real, make a business out of Wedding Day.”
“Providing costumes and cupcakes, and very patient dogs for little girls?” Laurel suggested.
“No, by providing a unique and amazing venue—this house, these grounds; spectacular cakes and pastries; heartbreaking bouquets and flowers; beautiful, creative photographs. And for my part—someone who’ll oversee every detail to make a wedding, or other important event, the most perfect day of the clients’ lives.”
She barely took a breath. “I already have countless contacts through my parents. Caterers, wine merchants, limo services, salons—everything.And what I don’t have, I’ll get.A full-service wedding and event business, the four of us as equal partners.”
“A wedding business.” Emma’s eyes went dreamy. “It sounds wonderful, but how could we—”
“I have a business model. I have figures and charts and answers to legal questions if you’ve got them. Del helped me work it out.”
“He’s okay with it?” Laurel asked. “Delaney’s okay with you turning the estate, your home, into a business?”
“He’s completely behind me on this.And his friend Jack’s willing to help by redesigning the pool house into a photographer’s studio, with living quarters above it, and the guest house into a flower shop with an apartment.We can turn the auxiliary kitchen here into your work space, Laurel.”
“We’d live here, on the estate?”
“You’d have that option,” Parker told Mac. “It’s going to be a lot of work, and it would be more efficient for all of us to be on-site. I’ll show you the figures, the model, the projection charts, the works. But there’s no point if any of you just don’t like the basic concept. And if you don’t, well, I’ll try to talk you into it,” Parker added with a laugh. “Then if you hate it, I’ll let it go.”
“The hell you will.” Laurel scooped a hand through her short cap of hair. “How long have you been working this out?”
“Seriously? Actively? About three months. I had to talk to Del, and Mrs. G, because without their support, it would never fly. But I wanted to put it all together before springing it on you. It’s business,” Parker said. “It would be our business, so it needs to be formed that way from the ground up.”
“Our business,” Emma repeated. “Weddings. What’s happier than a wedding?”
“Or crazier,” Laurel put in.
“The four of us can handle crazy. Parks?” Mac’s dimples winked as she held out a hand. “I’m so in.”
“You can’t commit until you’ve seen the model, the figures.”
“Yes, I can,” Mac corrected. “I want this.”
“Me, too.” Emma laid her hand on theirs.
Laurel took a breath, held it. Released. “I guess that makes it unanimous.” And she put her hand on theirs. “We’ll kick wedding ass.”
CRAZY BRIDE CALLED AT FIVE TWENTY-EIGHT A.M.
“I had a dream,” she announced while Parker lay in the dark with her BlackBerry.
“An amazing dream. So real, so urgent, so full of color and life! I’m sure it means something. I’m going to call my psychic but I wanted to talk it over with you, first.”
“Okay.” With the grace of experience, Parker reached over, turned her bedside lamp on low. “What was the dream about, Sabina?” she asked as she picked up the pad and pen beside the lamp.
“Alice in Wonderland.”
“You dreamed about Alice in Wonderland?”
“Specifically the Mad Hatter’s tea party.”
“Disney or Tim Burton?”
“Nothing.” Parker shook back her hair, noted key words. “Go on.”
“Well, there was music and a banquet of food. I was Alice, but I wore my wedding dress, and Chase looked absolutely amazing in a morning coat.The flowers, oh, they were spectacular. And all of them singing and dancing. Everyone was so happy, toasting us, clapping. Angelica was dressed as the Red Queen and playing a flute.”
Parker noted down MOH for Angelica, the maid of honor, then continued to record other members of the wedding party. The best man as the White Rabbit, the mother of the groom as the Cheshire Cat, father of the bride, the March Hare.
She wondered what Sabina had eaten, drunk, or smoked before going to bed.
“Isn’t it fascinating, Parker?”
“Absolutely.” As had been the pattern of tea leaves that had determined Sabina’s bridal colors, the tarot reading that had forecast her honeymoon destination, the numerology that had pointed to the only possible date for her wedding.
“I think maybe my subconscious and the fates are telling me I need to do an Alice theme for the wedding.With costumes.”
Parker closed her eyes. While she’d have said—and would say now—that the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party suited Sabina to the ground, the event was less than two weeks away.The decor, the flowers, the cake and desserts, the menu—the works—already chosen.
“Hmm,” Parker said to give herself a moment to think.“That’s an interesting idea.”
“Says to me,” Parker interjected, “the celebrational, magical, fairy-tale atmosphere you’ve already chosen. It tells me you were absolutely right.”
“Completely. It tells me you’re excited and happy, and can’t wait for your day. Remember, the Mad Hatter held his tea party every day. It’s telling you that your life with Chase will be a daily celebration.”
“Oh! Of course!”
“And, Sabina, when you stand in front of the looking glass in the Bride’s Suite on your wedding day, you’ll be looking at yourself with Alice’s young, adventurous, happy heart.”
Damn, I’m good, Parker thought as the crazy bride sighed.
“You’re right, you’re right.You’re absolutely right. I’m so glad I called you. I knew you’d know.”
“That’s what we’re here for. It’s going to be a beautiful wedding, Sabina.Your perfect day.”
After she hung up, Parker lay back a moment, but when she closed her eyes, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party—Disney version—ran manically in her head.
Resigned, she rose, crossed over to the French doors to the terrace of the room that had once been her parents’. She opened them to the morning air, took a deep breath of dawn as the sun took its first peek over the horizon.
The last stars winked out in a world perfectly, wonderfully still—like a breath held.
The upside of crazy brides and those of that ilk was wakefulness just before dawn when it seemed nothing and no one but she stirred, nothing and no one but she had this moment when night passed its torch to day, and the silvery light sheened to pearl that would shimmer—when that breath released—to pale, lustrous gold.
She left the doors open when she walked back into the bedroom. Taking a band from the hammered silver box on her dresser, she pulled her hair back into a tail. She shed her nightshirt for cropped yoga pants and a support tank, chose a pair of running shoes off the shelf in the casual section of her ruthlessly organized closet.
She hooked her BlackBerry to her waistband, plugged in her headphones, then headed out of her room toward her home gym.
She hit the lights, flipped on the news on the flat screen, listening with half an ear as she took a few moments to stretch.
She set the elliptical for her usual three-mile program.
Halfway through the first mile, she smiled.
God, she loved her work. Loved the crazy brides, the sentimental brides, the persnickety brides, even the monster brides.
She loved the details and demands, the hopes and dreams, the constant affirmation of love and commitment she helped to personalize for every couple.
Nobody, she determined, did it better than Vows.
What she, Mac, Emma, and Laurel had taken head-on one late summer evening was now everything and more than they’d imagined.