Happy ever after, p.17
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       Happy Ever After, p.17

         Part #4 of Bride Quartet series by Nora Roberts
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  Cold ones.

  “You’ve got a fridge in there?”

  “A small one built in. It’s convenient. And . . .” She twisted the top on her bottle. “Efficient.”

  “Hard to argue.” He saw her eyes slide over to her phone, had to smile. “Go ahead. No point in you being distracted.”

  “I promise our brides round-the-clock availability. And even if I didn’t,” she added as she walked over to pick up the phone, “some of them would call whenever they got an itch. A wedding can and does take over the world when it’s yours. Clara Elder, both times,” she said when she checked the display. She switched to voice mail.

  He heard her sigh, watched her close her eyes as she sat on the bed.

  “Bad news?”

  “Hysterical, weeping brides are never good.” When she listened to the second message, she opened the drawer of her nightstand, took out a roll of Tums, thumbed one off.

  “What’s the problem?”

  “She had a fight with her sister, who’s also her maid of honor, about the dress she wants her to wear.The MOH hates it, and according to Clara, the groom took the sister’s side, resulting in another big fight with him walking out of their apartment. I have to return her call. It may take a while.”

  “Fine.” He shrugged, glugged down some water. “I get to see how you fix it.”

  “Appreciate the confidence,” she replied, then hit the key to return the call.

  “Want something stronger than water?”

  She shook her head. “Clara, it’s Parker. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to the phone quicker.”

  She lapsed into silence during which Malcolm could hear the hysterical bride’s voice if not the words. High-pitched, full of angry tears.

  So, he concluded, the strategy was to let her vent it out, pour out the anger and tears to a sympathetic ear.While Clara vented, Parker rose to open the terrace doors. Cool air blew in, lightly scented with the night. Malcolm appreciated the way it fluttered Parker’s robe.

  “Of course you’re upset.” Parker all but cooed it. Cool air, he thought again, over hot temper.“No one can really understand the stress of all the decisions and the details but you. Naturally you were hurt, Clara. Anyone would be. But I think . . . Um-hmm. Ah.”

  She continued to make soothing and agreeable noises as she closed the doors again, walked back to the bed to sit.And this time rested her head on updrawn knees.

  “I understand exactly, and you’re right, it’s your wedding. It’s your day. My sense is that Nathan wanted to help—Yes, I know that, but let’s face it, Clara, men just don’t get it, do they?”

  She turned her face, offered Malcolm a smile and eye roll. “And sometimes they just step in it, then can’t figure how to get out. I really think Nathan was trying to smooth things over with you and Margot because he hated for you to be upset. He just went about it clumsily.”

  She listened again, and Malcolm could hear the bride’s tone clicking down several levels.

  “It’s not that the details aren’t important to him, Clara, it’s that you’re more important.Anger and stress, Clara, on both your parts. You know he adores you, and he knows, too, how much you and Margot mean to each other. No.” She cast her eyes to the ceiling. “I don’t think you were wrong.”

  She mouthed:

  Yes, I do.

  “I think emotions got the best of everyone. And, Clara, I know how much you’d regret it if your sister wasn’t standing beside you on the most important day of your life.Yes, the dress is important. It’s very important. I think I can help there.Why don’t we all meet at the shop next week? You, Margot, and me. I’m sure I can find something that makes you both happy.”

  She listened another minute or two, adding soothing noises, directing the solution in easy tones.

  “That’s right.Why don’t you call Nathan now? Yes, I know, but how happy are either of you going to be if you let this fester between you? The dress is important, but nothing’s more important than you and Nathan starting your life together . . . I know you will.” She laughed. “I bet. I’ll see you and Margot Tuesday. That’s what I’m here for. Good night.”

  “Good job.”

  Parker blew out a breath.“She wants her sister to wear celadon, which the sister hated. Said it makes her look sallow, and having met Margot, I’m sure it did.”

  “What the hell is celadon?”

  “It’s kind of a celery color. A good sister shouldn’t want her MOH to look sallow, but a good MOH sucks it up and wears what the bride wants. It’s basic wedding rules. So, huge fight, which continues via phone, drawing the MOB in, who wisely kept her mouth shut.Then the poor groom tries to defuse the situation, telling the furious bride that it’s no big, just pick another dress. It’s all about you and me, baby. To which the bride explodes, and so on and so forth.”

  “So it’s all about celery.”

  She laughed. “The celery is the MacGuffin. It’s about power, control, emotions, stress, and family dynamics.”

  “You got her to agree to a different dress and call the guy all without telling her she was stupid.”

  “That’s the job. Plus she wasn’t stupid so much as too focused on the minutiae, which she should leave to me.”

  “And the minutiae is why you keep Tums in the nightstand?”

  “They help when furious, crying brides call at night.” She pushed her hair back over her shoulders, studied his face. “I have to get up early.”

  “Do you want me to go?”

  “No, I don’t, but if you stay, you need to know I have to get up early.”

  “It’s handy because so do I.” He set the water down, then reached out to pull her hair back over her shoulders. “Why don’t we take round two a little slower?”

  She linked her arms around his neck. “Why don’t we?”

  HE HEARD THE BEEP, OPENING ONE EYE TO THE DARK. HE FELT Parker stir beside him then reach over to turn off the alarm.

  “I should’ve asked you to define early,” he mumbled.

  “Full plate today, and I want to get my workout in before it starts.”

  He opened both eyes to read the clock. Five fifteen. Could be worse. “I wouldn’t mind a workout. Next time I’ll bring some gear.”

  “I’ve got extra gear if you want to use the gym.”

  “I don’t think yours’ll fit me.”

  She turned the light on low as she rose and, swinging on the robe, walked to an adjoining door. “Just a minute.”

  In just about that minute, while he contemplated catching another half hour of sleep, she came in carrying a gray T-shirt, gym shorts, and socks.

  “Del’s?”

  “No. I keep a supply of various things for guests.”

  “You keep clothes for guests?”

  “Yes.” She dropped them on the bed. “And as you can see, it’s a useful habit. Unless you were just making noises about a workout.”

  “Give me five minutes.”

  She took little more than that to change into a sexy red tank and pants that hit just above her knee. She pulled her hair back into a tail. And hooked her phone on her waistband.

  “How many days a week do you put in on that body, Legs?”

  “Seven.”

  “Well, from my perspective, it’s worth it.” He gave her ass a quick pat that had her blinking. “In memory of Uncle Henry.”

  Laughing, she guided him to her gym.

  He stopped in the doorway. He’d seen their setup at their beach house in the Hamptons, but that was small change compared to this.

  Two treadmills, an elliptical, a recumbent bike, Bowflex, free weights, a bench press—not to mention the huge flat-screen and the glass-fronted fridge holding bottles of water and juice.Towels, he noted, neatly folded, alcohol wipes, killer view.

  “Convenient,” he said, “and efficient.”

  “For years it’s mostly been Laurel and me using it, with Emma and Mac making the occasional visit. But recently it’s been getting a lot more traf
fic. I think we’ll add another elliptical and bike, maybe a rower. So.” She took a towel from the pile.“I catch up on the morning news while I do a couple miles, but there are a couple of iPods if you want music.”

  “Of course there are. I’ll take a run with tunes.”

  Different world, he thought as he set himself up on a treadmill. It beat the hell out of the setup he had at home. Classy, sure, but it damn well was efficient. He had a fondness for efficiency.

  Plus it wasn’t a hardship to take his run while Parker took her strides beside him.

  He put in a solid three miles before moving on to the free weights. While she used the Bowflex, they sweat in companionable silence.

  He hit the fridge for water while she unrolled a mat and started some sort of yoga deal and seemed to flow from one tricky position to another.

  “You’ll have to show me how that works sometime.”

  She rose from basically bending herself in two and moved into some sort of long, fluid lunge.“I’ve got a really good instructional DVD for beginners.”

  “Of course you do, but I think I’ll let you do the instructing. You’re fucking beautiful, Parker. I’m going to grab a shower, okay?”

  “I . . . Sure. I’m going to be about fifteen minutes.”

  “Take your time.”

  He walked out, his mind full of her, then spotted Del, dressed in sweats, heading toward the gym. Del stopped, an almost comical freezing of motion.

  Here we go, Malcolm thought and kept walking. “Hey.”

  “Hey?” Del goggled at him. “That’s all you have to say?”

  “Nice gym. I slept with your sister, and you can take a swing at me like you did at Jack over Emma, but it’s not going to change it. It’s not going to stop me from sleeping with her again.”

  “For fuck’s sake, Mal.”

  “I gave you fair warning, and I didn’t push her. And I can tell you that part wasn’t easy. She’s the most amazing woman I’ve ever met, and that’s on every level I can come up with. If you’ve got a problem with it, Del, I’m going to be sorry, but that’s not going to change anything either.”

  “Just what the hell are your intentions?”

  “Jesus.” Malcolm dragged a hand through his hair. “That’s a serious question? My intentions are to be with her as often as I can, in bed and out. She’s beautiful and she’s smart and she’s funny even when she doesn’t mean to be. And goddamn it, she’s got me by the throat.”

  Del took a minute to pace back and forth. “If you screw this up, if you make her unhappy, I’ll do more than take a swing at you.”

  “If I screw this up, you won’t have to take a swing at me. Parker would already have flattened me.”

  He left Del muttering to himself and hit the shower.

  He’d just finished dressing when Parker came in.

  “Should I apologize for my brother?”

  “No. If I had a sister I’d probably punch first, discuss later. It’s cool.”

  “Our relationship’s more complicated than most siblings’. When our parents died, he . . . Del feels he has to look out for me—for all of us, but especially me.”

  “I get it, Parker. I can’t blame him. More, it’s part of who he is, and who he is is a friend of mine. He give you some grief?”

  She smiled now. “In his Del way, and I gave him back some in my way.We’re fine. He’s your friend, too, Malcolm.”

  “That’s right, so I think we’ll just get this one thing out there now, before we go wherever we’re going. I don’t care about the money.”

  Her eyes chilled. He thought no one did cold disdain quite like Parker Brown. “I never thought you did, nor did Del.”

  “The thought’s going to jingle eventually, so let’s just head it off. You’ve got a hell of a place here, and I don’t just mean the house.Your place, Parker, around here. I’ve got to respect the time, the effort, the smarts that earned you, the Browns, that place. But I make my own, and that’s how I like it. I take care of myself and my mother because that’s my place. I don’t see money or status or what’s it—pedigree—when I look at you. I just see you, and you need to know that.”

  As she had the night before, she walked over to the terrace doors, opened them to the air.Then turned to him.“Do you think I’m slumming?”

  He considered her a moment. Not just angry, but a little hurt. As he’d been with Del, he was sorry for it, but it didn’t change anything. “No. That’s beneath you. I’m clear on that. I want to make sure we’re all clear, on both sides.”

  “Apparently we are.”

  “You’re a little pissed.” He moved to her. “You’ll get over it. Want to catch a movie tonight? They’re doing a Hitchcock deal. I think it’s Notorious tonight.”

  “I really don’t know if—”

  “Well, I’ll call you, see what’s up.”

  “You’re welcome to coffee and breakfast in the kitchen,” she told him, absolutely, perfectly civil.

  “Sounds good, but I’ve got to book.” He grabbed her, just grabbed her and gave her a quick reminder of what they had between them. “See you later,” he said as he headed for the door.

  He glanced back to where she stood in the center of the open doors, the sky and trees at her back. “Lay off the Tums, Legs.”

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  THIS ONE WAS PERSONAL. SHERRY MAGUIRE WAS A FRIEND, AND SHE was Carter’s sister—that made her family.Adding to the impact and intimacy of the connection, Carter’s subbing for Nick during the previous January’s wedding planning meeting had brought him and Mac together.

  This wedding, Parker determined, would not only go off without a hitch (one that showed, anyway), but would be one for the books.Vows would give Sherry and Nick the day, and the memories, of a lifetime.

  And in a very real sense, Parker saw it as a prelude to Mac’s wedding in December.

  Many of the same people would attend, she thought as she did a full sweep of the event areas. Her goal was to give the clients, friends, family, perfection, while whetting the appetite for the wedding of her childhood friend and partner.

  It wasn’t the first time one or all of them had been guests as well as providers, and they had plenty of tricks up their sleeves to carry it off.

  She noted Emma had mastered the quick change from business suit for the afternoon event and worked with her team to clear the formal roses and lily arrangements, the swags of white and burnt gold, the marble stands and urns. Emma wore running shoes, many-pocketed jeans, and a sweatshirt.

  And would change yet again, Parker thought, in the family wing for the event.

  Already the ambiance Sherry wanted came to life with the wide, cheerful faces of candy pink gerbera daisies, the saucer-size blooms of zinnias in bold, happy colors, the soft, almost sheer pinks of baby roses. Flowers crowded huge white baskets, spilled and tumbled out of enormous bowls in fanciful and fun groupings.

  Nothing formal or studied, not for Sherry, Parker noted.

  She lent a hand, carrying arrangements to the Bride’s Suite, setting them as directed among the candles already in place. She took the main staircase down, delighted with the twining of pretty lace with a bright rainbow of more baby roses.

  It was exactly Sherry, she thought—sweet, fun, and happy.

  From there she dashed outside to where Jack and Carter helped Tink transform the pergola into a frame of cheerful flowers. Her nerves jingled at the sight of Carter on the ladder. The man wasn’t known for his grace.

  “It’s going to be just beautiful. Carter, maybe you could come down and give me a hand.”

  “Nearly got this.”

  She held her breath, tried not to think of broken arms and ankles as Carter leaned out to twine a swag. He nearly missed a step on the way down, but managed to do no more than bang his elbow.

  “It’s looking pretty good, don’t you think?” he asked Parker.

  “It’s looking great and just like Sherry.”

  “I’m nervous.” He took
off the glasses he’d put on for the close-up work, stuck them in a pocket.“I didn’t think I would be. The rehearsal last night went so well, was so easy and fun. Big thanks again for getting Di involved. She actually enjoyed herself.”

  “Part of the job.”

  “I have to keep busy.” His hands went in and out of his pockets. “If I don’t, I remember my baby sister’s getting married.”

  “Well, I can do you a favor. I’m swamped, and if you could take this checklist in, go over it with the caterer, it would free me up and help with your nerves.”

  And mine, she thought, as he wouldn’t have to climb any more ladders.

  “I can do that. Have you seen Mac?”

  “She’s helping with the changeover in the Solarium, but I’m going to have to break her away soon.”

  Before that, she added her hands to the ones adding nosegays to the white-covered chairs. They were lucky with the weather, she thought, so Sherry could have her outdoor wedding. When the sun went down, it would cool off considerably, but the outdoor heaters would keep the guests comfortable enough if they wandered onto the terraces.

  And the trees, she thought with one last look, were as bright and colorful as Emma’s flowers. After a glance at her watch, she hurried inside to check Laurel’s progress. And, she thought, to grab a couple quick slugs of coffee.

  The bride and her party were due in fifteen.

  “Please tell me you’ve got fresh coffee, and that you’re nearly . . . Oh, Malcolm.”

  “Hey, Legs.” He paused from plating some of Laurel’s gorgeous cookies to give Parker a once-over. “New look for you. Cute.”

  She wore a full white apron over the blue dress she’d chosen for the wedding. She wouldn’t have time to change later. She had shed her heels for Uggs.

  Far, she thought, from her best presentation, however efficient. He, on the other hand, wore a dark suit, a snowy white shirt, and a tie in subtle stripes.

  “You, too.” She’d never seen him in a suit, she realized.They’d been together nearly every night through the week, slept together, and she hadn’t been entirely sure he even owned a suit.

  “I put him to work.” Laurel stood on a step stool, putting finishing touches on the five-tiered cake. “Del deserted me. Nice presentation,” she added to Malcolm. “I may keep you.”

  “But you still don’t trust me with the pastries.”

  “Baby steps.”

  “Laurel.” Parker took a step closer. “That cake. It’s so damn happy.”

  The square layers rose up, stacked like wicker boxes and drenched in color, with a combination of real and sugar-paste flowers blooming over it.

  “It’s a winner, inside and out, but I think my favorite touch is the topper—and that goes to you, Master.”

  “She didn’t want usual or formal.” And damn if the laughing bride and groom kicking up their heels in a dance on top of the cake didn’t make her smile. “The artist really captured them.”

  “And we’re going to be getting requests for personalized toppers like this the minute this one’s unveiled.”

  “Which is relatively soon. I’ve got to—”

  “Coffee.” Malcolm handed her a cup.

  “Oh.Thanks.”

 
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