Happy ever after, p.24
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       Happy Ever After, p.24

         Part #4 of Bride Quartet series by Nora Roberts
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  them work on cars.”

  “We do that to placate you.”

  He lowered the Jeep a couple feet. “When did you ever date anybody who got under a car?”

  “I haven’t—previously—but Mac did, so I have it on good authority.”

  Relaxed, with whatever had been balled in his throat, in his gut, loosened, he grinned at her. “That’s sexist. I’ve known plenty of female motorheads.”

  “That sort wouldn’t be expected to ‘hang out and watch.’”

  “Fine. Can you reach the steering wheel?”

  “I suppose, but—”

  “Do me a favor. Go on up there, turn it all the way to the right. Then all the way to the left.”


  “Because lifting the suspension like this involves a lot of mods, and I want to make sure there’s no interference before I put the wheels on.”

  “What would you have done if I hadn’t come by?”

  “Stayed mildly pissed off.All the way right,” he added, then got down on a creeper and scooted under the Jeep.

  “I meant about the Jeep, but I actually prefer that answer.” She leaned inside, turned the wheel. “Like that?”

  “Yeah, looks good. Really good view from down here.”

  “You’re supposed to be looking at whatever’s under this Jeep, not under my skirt.”

  “I can do both.To the left, Legs.”

  “Do you think your mother would like to come to Thanksgiving dinner?”When he said nothing for a moment, she cast her eyes at the ceiling. “Or would Thanksgiving dinner be out of place in our situation?”

  “Give me a minute.” He rolled out, grabbed a tool, rolled under again.

  She heard some light clanging. “Turn it again.There we are.”

  He rolled out, rose, then stepped over to pick up an enormous tire. Why did he call it a wheel? Maybe the wheel was what she thought of as the inside the tire holder—and fit it on . . . would that be the axle?

  Why the hell did she care?

  “I’ve never been in this particular situation.”

  “I see.”

  “No, you don’t.” He used some sort of air tool that made a loud hiss, a thump.“I’ve been in situations, but this particular one’s different.”

  “I do see, Malcolm. It’s a different situation for me, too. And I understand, really, if a traditional family holiday doesn’t fit.”

  “I guess we can find out. I know she’d like it, but she’s going to ask me all kinds of questions, like the dress code or—”

  “It’s black tie.”

  She kept her face bland for about five seconds while he made an obvious struggle not to swear. “Oh, for God’s sake, Malcolm.” She had to laugh. “There’s no code. And for a good chunk of the day, like the majority of households in America, at least the male portion of the group will be in front of the TV watching football.”

  “I bet the cranberry sauce won’t come out of a can, like in the majority of households in America.”

  “There you’ve got me. I’ll talk to your mother, and spare you the inquisition.”

  “You’d think. Appreciate it, but she’ll still grill me, and she’ll stay on my ass so I end up wearing a suit.”

  “You look good in a suit.Why are those tires so big?”

  “Because the kid who owns the Jeep is a show-off.” He pressed the lift button until the tires were on the ground.“I need to check the steering again, like this, then with each side jacked up to max. Need to do the front-end alignment.”

  He studied the Jeep, then the woman. “I can do that in the morning. Why don’t I wash up, lock up, then take you out to dinner?”

  “It’s a little late for dinner.”

  Since he wasn’t wearing a watch, he gestured toward her wrist, angled his head to read hers. “Yeah, I guess it is, unless you haven’t had dinner.”

  “Tell you what. Why don’t you wash up, lock up, then follow me home. I’ll scramble you some eggs. It’s today’s special.”

  “That’ll work. Parker? I’m glad you came by.”

  PARKER GRABBED THE PHONE AND ROLLED OUT OF BED AT THE same time. Her quick glance at the time told her it was barely five, and Friday evening’s bride was already up.

  “Good morning, Leah. How—”

  She broke off, slipping into the adjoining sitting room as the bride relayed the crisis.

  “Oh, I’m so sorry. No, listen, don’t worry about the time. I’m yours all day. I don’t want you to worry about anything to do with the wedding. If you talk to Justin, tell him we’re all keeping his mother in our thoughts.We’ll work out the rest, Leah. Leave it to me. Let me ask you this: Can one of the other groomsmen stand as best man?”

  Parker listened, grateful her bride kept her cool despite having the best man on his way to Seattle on her wedding day.

  “That’s good.Yes, that still leaves you short a groomsman. Is it possible either you or Channing knows someone who could fill in? Yes, I understand it’s very last minute, and there’s the matter of fit with the vests and the shirts you decided on.”

  Pursing her lip, she eased the door open, narrowed her eyes at Malcolm, who’d taken advantage of her absence to sprawl diagonally over the bed.

  “I might have someone who’d fit. I understand neither you nor Channing know him, but . . . No, don’t think about it. Let me see what I can do, and I’ll get back to you. I promise you, we’ll take care of everything. Give me about an hour.”

  Parker slipped back into the bedroom, considered strategy.

  It never hurt to soften up the quarry.

  She eased back into bed, snuggled up against his back. It was hard work, she thought as she stroked a hand down his flank, brushed her lips over his bare shoulder. But somebody had to do it.

  And he was warm, firm. When she glided her hand over his hip, over his belly, down, she smiled and thought, very firm.

  She danced her fingers down his thigh, up again. Then got serious about the task at hand. Using hands and lips, she stirred him awake, shifted him onto his back where she saw his sleepy eyes glint in the dark.

  “Good morning,” she murmured, laying a line of kisses down his chest.

  “It’s looking that way.”

  She nibbled at his throat, gentle, teasing bites. “Since I was up, and so were you . . .” She worked her way up to his ear as his hands moved over her. “I hope you don’t mind if I just help myself.”

  “Do what you gotta do.”

  She laughed and straddled him. She slid up, offering her breasts to his mouth, and let herself fall into the lazy pleasure. There was still so much of him she didn’t really know, so much about him she might never fully understand.

  But here, in the dark, they knew each other.

  She rose up, took him in.

  She surrounded him, body, scent, the sound of her breathing sighing out, the taste of her lingering on his tongue. She moved over him, pale shadow, soft fantasy, warm woman. Before morning broke she took him over, ruled him, owned him.

  When she bowed back, taking that reckless fall, she pulled him with her.

  She made a sound he equated with a cat licking up the last drop of milk, then stretched out on him, full-length.

  “Now that . . .” She repeated the sound. “That’s a perfect way to start the day.”

  “Breakfast of champions.”

  “Mmm.When do you have to go into work?”

  “Seven, maybe seven thirty. With this kind of jump-start I might grab a half hour in the gym.What the hell time is it?”

  “You’ve got a couple hours.You’ll be back later?”

  “Yeah, I’ll come back.” His fingers trailed lazily up and down her spine. “I should be able to get away about four if you’re looking for some help tonight.”

  “That would be great.” She smiled, turned her head to kiss the side of his neck. “Since the call that gave us this lovely early start was from this evening’s bride, and there’s a complication.”

I’ll make sure I get back. I figure I owe her.”

  It was, Parker thought, almost too easy. “Actually, you’re just the one to solve the complication.”

  “What? The limo needs a tune-up? Or some Cinderella carriage needs a wheel changed?”

  “You’d be the one to call. But no.” She kissed his stubble-roughened cheek.“The groom’s best friend, and best man, had to fly to Seattle this morning.”Then the other.“His mother’s having emergency surgery.”

  “That’s rough. Serious?”

  “Peritonitis.They’re worried about sepsis, and other complications. More, she was out there taking care of her mother, who just had a hip replacement, so it’s doubly difficult for everyone. Leah and Channing are worried about their friend, their friend’s mother, and are missing a best man. They’ll upgrade one of the groomsman for that, but that leaves them one short.”


  “So, we’ll need a substitute, and one who’s about the same build as Justin, the best man, so the tux fits.”


  “You’re about a thirty-eight long, right? Thirty-two waist? I’d say a thirty-five sleeve.”

  “I guess. I haven’t . . . Whoa. Wait.” When he pushed at her shoulders, she just burrowed in.

  “You’d be doing me a huge favor.You’ll like Channing. He’s a sweetheart. He and Leah actually grew up together, so to speak. They were an item for a while in high school, then lost touch for a bit during the college years until—”

  “You’ve got to be kidding.”This time he put a little more into the shove and rolled her off.“You don’t seriously expect me to put on some guy’s tux and—”

  “I really think it’ll fit. Del needs a forty, and Jack’s a regular. And they wouldn’t be able to wear their own, as the wedding party’s coordinated.”

  “There’s no way I’m—”

  “Consider it pinch hitting. That’s really all it is.” She rolled back, sliding over his chest. “You’ve been in a wedding before, haven’t you?”

  “Yeah, but—”

  “All you have to do is show guests to their seats, stand up there with the groomsmen, and then escort a very attractive attendant in the recession. It would really take a huge burden off Leah and Channing.”

  “Maybe I’d care about that if I knew Leah and Channing.”

  “You know me.You’d really be helping me out, Malcolm.” She brushed a kiss along his jaw. “And I’d really appreciate it.”

  “I’ve got to work.”

  “But you’ll be here in plenty of time. Really, if you’re back by five forty-five, I can make it work. I’ll take care of all the details. All you have to do is wear the tux—oh, and the shoes you wore for Sherry’s wedding would be fine—”

  “Thank God.”

  “Sarcasm noted, and ignored.You just show up, look gorgeous, and direct a few people to their seats. It’s going to be a beautiful wedding.The cake’s amazing. Chocolate marble with a marbleized fondant over buttercream. Laurel’s serving it in pools of caramel sauce.”

  “You think I can be bribed with cake?”

  “It’s exceptional cake.” Now she nipped, ever so lightly, at his jaw. “And I bet I can confiscate some extra caramel sauce for . . . later.”

  “Now you’re bribing me with caramel-sauce sex?”

  “I am.”

  “You’re freaking diabolical, Legs.”


  “And the wake-up call? That was to prime me for all this?”


  “It was good thinking.”

  “You’ll do it?”

  “I’d like to meet the man who can hold out against caramel sauce.”

  “Thank you.” She planted a hard, noisy kiss on his mouth. “Seriously, thank you. I’ve got to call Leah, let her know.” She jumped out of bed, grabbed the phone. “Don’t worry about a thing.All you have to do is be here, and I’ll coach you through the rest.”

  “Yeah, yeah.”

  And as she called the bride, Malcolm pulled a pillow over his face.


  HE THOUGHT ABOUT INVENTING AN EMERGENCY, BUT THAT WOULD be cowardly. And it wouldn’t result in caramel sauce.

  Plus, he had to admit she’d outmaneuvered him, and couldn’t help but admire her strategy. And he’d revved on the execution most of the day.

  He finished the work on the Jeep, rebuilt a carburetor, ran a few diagnostics for routine service checks, and took a couple of road calls, as he’d be passing the night shift to Bill.

  He skimmed through some paperwork—most of which he intended to dump on his mother—and completed a list of replacement parts he needed her to hunt up for a rehab on a ’67 Mustang.

  He took a glance at his balance sheet. It always gave him an odd little jolt to realize he was flush.

  Flush enough to pump some back into the business, give his mother and the rest of the crew decent raises, and maybe take a little winter vacation after the holidays.

  A week somewhere with a beach and blue water. Things slowed down some at Vows in January, according to Parker. She could probably figure out how to skip out for a week,. Nobody figured like Parker.

  He’d teach her to surf.

  Maybe she knew how to surf. He should ask her.

  And it occurred to him he was planning a vacation around Parker.When had that happened?

  He sat for a moment listening to the sounds from the garage, let himself absorb the notion.When it didn’t give him the jitters, he let out a huh.

  So it didn’t matter when or how it happened, it just was. And he was okay with it.

  Better than okay, he admitted, because he could see her with him on that beach with blue water, drinking some local rum deal, and just letting work go for a few days.

  Or . . . maybe a break at her place in the Hamptons. Something to be said for winter beaches—solitude, sex by the fire.

  So, he’d toss the idea at her, see where it went.

  He gathered up the files, moved through the garage and into the office.

  “Got some stuff,” he began, and went over the lists and invoices while his mother peered at the paperwork through her green-framed glasses.

  “You’re taking off now?”

  “I was going to. I sort of have a thing I have to do. Whatever you don’t get to, I’ll finish up by Monday.”

  “I didn’t say I couldn’t get it done. Come here.”

  He leaned over the counter.And she cuffed the side of his head.


  “Why didn’t you tell me we were getting an invite to Thanksgiving dinner at the Brown Estate?”

  “It just came up.” Aggrieved as only his mother could make him, he rubbed the side of his head. “And Parker said she’d call you about it, which I guess she did.What’s the problem?”

  “If you’d told me, I wouldn’t have been taken by surprise. And if she hadn’t called, I’d’ve bought a damn turkey on my way home from work today.Then I’d have a turkey I don’t need.”

  “Well, she did so you didn’t, and you don’t.”

  “You’re lucky I didn’t.” She gave him that smirk that made him want to hunch his shoulders. “You’re wearing a suit.”

  He knew it. “She said it didn’t matter.”

  “I don’t care what she said. I’m saying you’re wearing a suit. You should buy a new suit.When’s the last time you bought a new suit?”

  He nearly did hunch his shoulders, and thanked God all his men were out of earshot. “I don’t know. Jesus.”

  “Don’t take that tone with me.” Her finger jabbed out at him like a switchblade. “You buy a new suit. And a tie. And some decent shoes.”

  “Good God.”

  “You’re seeing someone like Parker Brown, you have more need for a suit than for a wedding or when somebody drops dead. And you’re a successful businessman, don’t you forget it.A successful businessman has more than one suit in his closet. And you could use a haircut.”

/>   “Anything else? Maybe I should learn French.”

  She wagged a finger, but her lips twitched. “You could parlay voo if you wanted.You’re bright enough.You get that from my side of the family. You get your build from your daddy. That’s why you look so sharp in a suit. Go on and get out of here so I can deal with this work you’ve tossed at me.”

  “If I’d known I was going to get bushwhacked, I’d have found more.” He walked to the door, glanced back—and felt the smirk they shared move onto his face. “Since I have to spend all this dough on clothes, I guess I can’t give you the raise I was planning on.Too bad.”

  It took some of the sting out of the idea of shopping when she scowled after him.

  BY THE TIME HE GOT TO PARKER’S, THE PLACE WAS IN FULL-EVENT mode. Emma and her flower people had already decked out the entrance with a lot of big straw-colored things holding acres of flowers. She’d mixed in some pumpkins, and what might’ve been gourds.

  He didn’t think he’d ever seen gourds at a wedding, but he had to admit they looked good.

  Inside they’d draped the staircase with miles of that filmy white stuff they used, more flowers, little lights. Still more flowers stood in pots and baskets and vases.

  It was like walking through a fall dreamscape. Which, he supposed, was the goal.

  He could hear more work going on in the Parlor, and in what they called the Grand Hall, but resisted the urge to poke his head in. He might get volunteered.

  He considered easing through, hitting Mrs. Grady up for a sandwich before he dealt with whatever he was going to have to deal with upstairs, but even as he turned in that direction, Parker moved into view at the top of the stairs.

  The woman, he thought, had better radar than NASA.

  “Perfect timing.” She shot out a killer smile as she came down. “The groom’s party is just getting started. I can’t tell you how much you’ve taken off their minds, and mine.” She locked on to him like a tractor beam and began to lead him up.

  “Everything’s right on schedule.”

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