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Always a Bridesmaid
Can the right man get her marching down the aisle?
By Cindi Myers, Ruth Homrighaus
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Cindi Myers
All rights reserved.
In possibly the worst twenty-four hours of her life, Stephanie Ludlow lost her lease, learned a good friend was getting married, and fell madly in lust with her potential new landlord. Not that any one of these things was so bad by itself. (Well, except for losing her lease. That sucked.) But taken together, she was certain they added up to a disaster in the making.
"You busy next Saturday?" These were the first words her friend and coworker Justin Thibodeaux said to her after she clocked in that Monday morning in late spring. The lanky blond had worked alongside Stephanie for the past four years and was always good for a laugh or the latest gossip.
Stephanie slid into her desk chair and put on her telephone headset as the phone rang. "Ludlow Heating and Air Conditioning. How may I help you? Oh, hello, Mrs. Grayson. Yes, Mark Greenlaw is scheduled to be there this morning by ten o'clock. Yes ma'am. No problem. Thank you for calling."
"Saturday. What are you doing Saturday?" Justin rolled his chair closer to hers, the line from his own headset trailing behind him like a deep sea diver's tether.
"Just studying." Since she'd decided to go back to school for her master's degree in business administration, studying had become Stephanie's life. She didn't mind, really. Her degree was going to open a lot of new doors and allow her to really make something of herself. "Other than that, I don't have anything planned. Why?" She took a slug of her extra-large chai latte.
"I'm getting married. I want you to be there."
A fountain of honey-sweetened chai and milk sprayed across the desktop, and Stephanie was momentarily overcome by a coughing fit. Justin pounded her back. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"
She wiped at her mouth with a paper towel. "Married? Didn't you just tell me last week that you weren't ready to settle down?"
He looked sheepish. "Yeah, well, that was before I found out Ilsa's going to be deported."
"Isn't she here on some kind of work visa?"
"Her visa's expiring. She has to go back to Romania. But if we get married, she can get a green card and stay."
Though Justin had dated the cute Romanian nurse longer than anyone in recent memory, Stephanie hadn't realized things were quite so serious between the two. Apparently her talkative coworker didn't tell her everything. "A green-card marriage. How romantic."
"Aww, don't be like that. I really do love her. I just hadn't planned on popping the question yet."
"Saturday is a little soon for a wedding. Are you sure you aren't rushing things?"
"We don't have much choice. If we don't make it legal quickly, immigration will kick her out. So will you be there? Please?"
"Of course I'll be there. I wouldn't miss it."
"Good. Then will you do me a favor?"
She narrowed her eyes at him, recalling past favors Justin had asked of her. Like the time he'd talked her into going on a blind date with his ex-college roommate, who had turned out to be an alcoholic who crooned Beatles tunes off-key after his third beer. Or the time he'd persuaded her to take snowboarding lessons with him, and she'd broken her wrist the first day. "It depends."
"Would you be one of Ilsa's bridesmaids? She still doesn't know that many people here, and it would mean a lot to me. And to her, too."
She stared at him. "Aren't bridesmaids a little formal for a rush job like this?"
"Ilsa wants to do this right. She says she can pull it together. She's already found a church."
Stephanie shook her head. "Sorry, but I don't do bridesmaid."
"You were a bridesmaid in Jackie Miller's wedding, weren't you?"
She made a face, remembering that particular nightmare. Between dealing with the neurotic bride and stuffing herself into orange taffeta ruffles, it had taken her weeks to recover. "Yes, and I've sworn off them since. Five weddings in ugly dresses is enough. I've done my time."
"Please. It would mean so much to both of us."
She was saved by the phone. "Ludlow Heating and Air Conditioning."
"Stephanie? It's Marge Carter."
"Oh, hi, Marge. Is something wrong?" She had remembered to mail this month's rent check, hadn't she? Why else would her landlord call her at work?
"Listen, hon, I got a buyer for the house, so I'm going to have to ask you to clear out."
Stephanie's stomach plummeted to knee level. The rental she was in had been on the market for more than a year — so long she'd decided it would probably never sell. "Uh, wow. How great." She tried to sound cheerful. "When do you need me to be out?"
"Friday. I know it's short notice, but the man and his wife are paying extra, and they want it right away. I can't lose the chance to unload the place after so long."
Stephanie bit back a scream of frustration. "Marge, I don't know if I —"
"You're young and single. And it's not like you have a ton of stuff. Couldn't you stay with friends? Or your dad? I'll refund your deposit and the rest of this month's rent. Look, I have to get off the phone now. The buyer said he'd call back right away. I'll tell him everything's okay. All right?"
Before she could squeeze out an answer, the dial tone sounded in her ear. She slumped and punched off the phone.
"What's wrong?" Justin peered at her. "You've gone all white."
"I've been evicted."
Justin grinned. "All those wild parties, right? C'mon, what's up, really?"
"Marge sold the house. I have to be out by Friday." She buried her head in her hands. "What am I going to do? I'll never find a place by the end of the week." Her father — and her boss — Jack Ludlow would let her crash at his place, no problem. But the prospect made her shudder. Once she crossed the threshold of her dad's townhome, she would be Daddy's little girl again, with all the overprotective concern and loss of privacy that implied.
"No problem," Justin said. "You can move in with me."
She shook her head. "Thanks, but don't you think Ilsa might object?" She and Justin were good friends, but that's all they were — friends. What new bride-to-be would understand that?
"No, really, one of my roommates moved out a few weeks ago, and the guy who owns the house has been looking for a replacement. It's a big front bedroom with its own bath."
She remembered now that Justin shared a house on Bear Creek with a lot of other people. "Who else lives there?"
"There's Mike — it's his house. Nicole — she's an accountant over at Baxter and Evans. Me. And Ilsa. She's already moved in with me."
"Wait a minute. You're still going to live there after you're married?"
"We can't really afford our own place right now, and it's a sweet setup. You've seen it — big yard, game room, living room, everything."
Stephanie had vague memories from a party she'd attended at the house last year of soaring ceilings, a stone fireplace, and a creek practically running past the front door. It was deluxe all right.
"Rent's five hundred a month. You won't find anything close to that price that's anywhere near as nice."
No kidding. You couldn't rent a toolshed in Evergreen, Colorado, for five hundred a month. She gave Justin a grateful look. "It sounds pretty good. Can you set it up for me to come by and take a look?"
He was already dialing. "Don't worry. You'll love it. And Mike's going to love you. Well, as much as he loves any woman."
"What's that supposed to mean? Is he gay?"
Justin shook his head. "Divorced. His ex-wife really did a number on him, and I guess he's bitter. But he's a great guy."
"Whatever. I'm not interested in him as a man. Only as a landlord."
Her phone line rang, and she hurried to answer it. Dating was fine, but she was done with serious relationships. She'd proven to herself that she was lousy at them. Every time, just when she thought it was going great and she started hearing distant wedding bells, things would blow up in her face. It had happened with both of the guys she'd gotten serious about, and she wasn't up to making it three in a row.
Besides, right now she needed to focus on school. She didn't have time for a love life. Better to keep things casual. A houseful of roommates might be helpful with that. What kind of a romance could you have with four or five other people always around?
* * *
By the time Stephanie shut off her engine in the driveway of Mike Brubaker's house after work, she would have seriously considered trading certain nonessential body parts for the chance to live there. Natural river rock and cedar timbers rose two stories amid hundred-year-old blue spruce and lodgepole pine. Expanses of tinted glass reflected the surrounding forest and mountains, and the silvery waters of Bear Creek tumbled over rocks less than a hundred yards from the front deck.
She studied the windows and tried to decide which one belonged to the bedroom Justin had mentioned. What would it be like to wake up to this view every day? She only hoped some other lucky sucker hadn't rented the space out from under her.
Using the rearview mirror, she freshened her lipstick, smoothed back her dark cap of hair, and tried for a not-too-eager expression. Ugh. Acting was not her strong suit. She got out of the car and climbed the steps to the front door.
"Yeah, yeah. Just a minute," came the shouted answer to the doorbell's summons. She heard shuffling, fumbling sounds from the other side of the door, and then it opened to reveal a broad-shouldered, flat-stomached man dressed in faded purple pajama pants — and nothing else. Stephanie stared at the light dusting of hair across his chest and struggled to keep her gaze from dropping to the single line of hair below his navel, disappearing into the low-slung pants.
Feelings she would have sworn were long dormant suddenly clamored for attention. Her heart pounded. She forced her gaze up to the man's face. He had thick brown hair, tousled as if he'd just awakened; a strong jaw shadowed with dark stubble; and piercing blue eyes. Sleepy eyes. Sexy eyes. "I, uh ... I'm here about the bed. I mean the bedroom."
Fortunately, Mr. Gorgeous was distracted by something behind him. He looked back over his shoulder. "Ryan, what are you doing in there?"
"I'm lookin' for the video, Dad."
"I'll help you find it in a minute. Get back on the couch."
A much smaller version of the man before her — without the chest hair, muscles, or beard stubble — came into the hallway. He, too, was clad in flannel pajama pants, and he had his father's dark hair and blue eyes. "Who's the lady?" he asked.
The man turned back to Stephanie. "Who did you say you were again?"
"Stephanie Ludlow. Justin's friend? I'm here about the room you have for rent."
He blinked and not-so-subtly checked her out. "When Justin said you were a friend from work, I wasn't expecting —" His gaze hovered over her chest, and she wished she hadn't worn such a tight T-shirt. "Well ..."
She folded her arms over her chest and tried not to sound as pissed off as she was beginning to feel. "You were expecting a man. Do you have a problem renting to a woman?"
"What?" He dragged his gaze up to eye level once more. "No. You just caught me by surprise, that's all. One of my other housemates, Nicole, is a woman." He held the door open wider and motioned Stephanie in. "I guess you figured out by now, I'm Mike Brubaker. Sorry I'm not dressed for company. My son's home sick today, and I stayed in to look after him. We were taking a nap."
"Now we're going to watch Spider-Man," the boy said.
"That's a good movie," she said. "I'm sorry you're not feeling well."
"I got a code." He sniffled loudly.
Mike put his hand on the boy's shoulder and turned him back toward the living room. "You go back on the couch, sport, while I show Ms. Ludlow the room."
They watched Ryan shuffle back down the hall. "Cute kid," Stephanie said.
"He's a great kid." No mistaking the pride in his voice. Mike might be bitter about women, but he clearly had a soft spot for his son.
"Does he live here with you?"
"Not as much as I'd like. Is that a problem? I know some people don't like having kids around."
"Oh, no!" She shook her head. "I love kids."
He rubbed his chin. The sound of his beard stubble rasping against his hand sent a quiver through her middle. Obviously it had been way too long since she'd been this close to a man. At least one wearing so few clothes ... and who had such an incredible body.
"Ryan's supposed to live here half the time. His mom and I share custody. But she has a way of changing things around to suit her schedule, not mine."
"Oh. That's ... unfortunate." And surprising, too. Mike didn't look like a man who let anyone tell him what to do.
"But you didn't come here to listen to my problems. Come on. I'll show you the room." He led her through a large formal living room to the spacious bedroom. "Almost three hundred square feet. Walk-in closet. Private bath with a shower. Overlooks the creek."
She bit back a cry of delight. It was perfect. Living here would be like living in some posh bed and breakfast. Except for the breakfast part. And no maid service. But still ...
She tore her eyes away from the fantastic walk-in closet and turned back to Mike. He had his hands on his hips and was staring out the window. Muscles bunched across his shoulders and upper arms, and that quiver went through her middle again. The view out the window wasn't the only great scenery around here.
He turned and caught her staring at him. "So what do you think?"
I think you're too gorgeous for me to live with in the same house. She tore her gaze from him and looked at the room again. Who wouldn't want to live in a place like this? She'd be a certifiable idiot if she passed up this chance. She'd never find anything nearly this wonderful and this cheap again. "It's beautiful. The whole house is beautiful."
"Thanks. I built it."
"Really?" She was impressed. "That's amazing."
He shrugged. "It's what I do."
"It's really a wonderful house."
"Thanks. The rent for this room is five hundred a month. You want it?"
"Yes!" she blurted.
What was a little unrequited lust compared to the chance to live in a place like this?CHAPTER 2
Stephanie put most of her furniture in storage and talked Justin into moving the rest to Mike's house in his truck. Marge, grateful for Stephanie's cooperation, refunded the entire month's rent and the deposit, which allowed Stephanie to pay Mike without emptying her savings account. Lucky break number two — number one being landing this place.
That left only her father to deal with. In another life, she'd have moved without telling him, but since she needed to give her new address to the payroll department at work — who was her aunt Judy, her father's sister — keeping her new digs a secret wasn't a possibility.
"You're moving into some stranger's house?" Jack Ludlow, a stocky fireplug of a man in his early fifties whose thick silver hair contrasted with his heavy, dark brows, rose from his chair in the Ludlow Heating and Air Conditioning office and leaned over the desk toward his daughter. "With a bunch of people you don't even know?"
"I know Justin. And it's not as if I'm moving in with strangers. I have my own room. My own suite. It's a really nice house, Dad." She rushed to head off all her father's potential objections. "And the rent is a real bargain. And it's in a safe neighborhood."
"Why don't you just move in with me? I've got a spare bedroom and bath. And I won't charge you any rent at all. You can help around the house in exchange for the room."
Stephanie gripped the arms of the chair until her knuckles ached. "Helping out around the house" was her dad's code for cooking and cleaning. She loved her father. She really did. But he was as old-fashioned as they came about the roles of men and women. Oh, he'd hire a woman to work for him without blinking, if she had the skills. But he pictured even the toughest tech going home at the end of the day to don an apron and whip up dinner and vacuum the rugs.
She could have dealt with all that, even. But Dad tended to be a little overprotective. Okay, a lot overprotective. After her mom had walked out when Stephanie was sixteen, her father had thrown himself into the role of single parent. He couldn't seem to stop trying to look after her and provide for her every need.
Excerpted from Always a Bridesmaid by Cindi Myers, Ruth Homrighaus. Copyright © 2012 Cindi Myers. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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