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Annie Macy studied her reflection in the full-length mirror and wondered what in the hell she was thinking when she let Aunt Tawney plan her wedding. Crisp white taffeta gowns and delicate lace veils were for twenty-something brides. Even a thirty-year-old would be pushing it to go to this extreme. But forty? Good gawd. She looked ridiculous. She looked desperate. Annie met her own gaze in the mirror. She looked miserable.
"Would you tilt your head a little to the left, Sugar?" her aunt asked in a tremulous voice.
Annie complied while trying to generate some enthusiasm for the event ahead. In forty minutes, she would be Mrs. Lance Holcomb and she wasn't sure how she felt about that.
Not anymore. Not after yesterday. Before that, if she were honest with herself.
Couldn't Tawney and everyone else buzzing about the dressing room see that she was only going through the motions, too confused to do anything else? Or were they all so caught up in the idea of happily-ever-after that they didn't notice?
Maybe they simply chose to ignore anything that might cause a hitch in The Planas in, get Annie married off before it's too late. She couldn't count the number of times over the last few years that Aunt Tawney had said a woman over forty had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than snagging a man. Tawney refused to hear Annie's reminders that Time or Newsweek or whichever publication had written that statement reneged on it later. Tawney believed it. Period.
Deep down, Annie had continued to buy into the dismal declaration, too. In her twenties, if someone had asked how she imagined her life would be at the age of forty, she would've said she'd have italla position of responsibility and power at her father's bank, a husband who was her equal, children.
She had none of those things.
Two years ago her biological clock had progressed from ticking to hammering away like a nervous woodpecker as the possibility of a husband and children slipped further and further out of her reach. Then her father hired Lance, introduced them to one another, and they hit it off. When Lance proposed one month before her fortieth birthday, the woodpecker took a breather and Annie shared its relief. She cared for Lance, they enjoyed each other's company. He was charming and funny, ambitious and interesting and smart. They were good together.
In addition to possibly making a beautiful baby, Annie knew they would make a great business team, too. She spent a lot of time frustrated with her father for not giving her more responsibility at work, more free rein. Annie tried to be patient, to humor him. Milford Macy was from the old school, and though he exasperated her, she respected his dedication to the business he'd built. She might be his daughter, but she would have to work her way up, learn the ropes the hard way before stepping into his shoes. Annie had been doing just that since dropping out of college twenty years earlier, convinced she could learn more from her father than a textbook.
Luckily, Lance shared her vision for the bank. He listened to her ideas, offered opinions, insights and suggestions. Lance had never voiced any objections to being the man behind the woman some day when she inherited the controlling share of First Bank of Savannah. Not that she wanted that; she would be happy to have him as her equal partner.
"This veil " Aunt Tawney sighed. "It's not quite right." She stood on tiptoe, her stubby plump fingers smoothing and adjusting as they had for the past half hour.
Again Annie shifted her attention to the mirror, to the blur of rustling pale-pink behind her. At the vanity that stretched across the back wall, her University of Georgia sorority sisters from twenty years prior fussed with their makeup and hair. Two of them, anyway. Charlene Willoby Blackthorn and Reece Osborne Calhoun giggled, whispered and cooed like teenaged girls, their voices unnaturally giddy in the stuffy room. Only the maid of honor, Sara Buckhorn Miles, seemed unfazed by all the froufrou feminine folderol. Sara paced and smoked and shot Annie pointed glances every five seconds.
They look like perimenopausal poodles, Annie thought, feeling removed from the scene, as if she were watching her life play out on a television screen, a low-budget, groan-inducing movie of the week on the "horror" channel. In addition to Annie's dress, Aunt Tawney had chosen the frilly, silly, pastel bridesmaid gowns. The society page would have a heyday with this. By tomorrow morning, Annie figured she would be the laughingstock of Savannah, but she was too numb to care.
The door squeaked open. Annie's aunt Tess, the youngest of her father's sisters, stepped into the chaos. Sixty and long-divorced, Tess was as tall and svelte and bold as Tawney was short and plump and timid. "I just saw Lance." Grinning, she fanned her face, sending her own tobacco-laced scent adrift in the room. "My, oh my. You're one lucky girl, Annie-fofannie. That man is mouthwatering gorgeous in holey jeans. You'll drool like the village idiot when you see him in his tux."
Annie heard a swish of taffeta as Charlene stepped closer. Misty-eyed and gushing, she took Annie's hand and gave it a squeeze. "Mr. and Mrs. Lance T. Holcomb." She sighed. "I'm so happy for you, honey. It's finally happening. After all these years."
"Happy for her? I'm proud of her," Reece huffed. "Unlike some of us, Annie held out for a bona fide catch."
Sara came up alongside Annie and in a quiet voice said, "Hey." Motioning with her head toward the door, she added, "You want to go for a walk?"
"Oh, my no," Tawney chirped. "Don't be silly. She doesn't have time for a walk." Wrinkling her nose and waving cigarette smoke away from Annie's gown with a fluttering hand, the older woman added, "Please put that nasty thing out, Sara. Today of all days, we don't want Annie to smell like an ashtray."
Annie kept her focus on Sara's knowing eyes. Those eyes saw things the others didn't. Those eyes would not allow Annie to fool herself. "I could use some air," she murmured. "Aunt Tawney, why don't you help Charlene and Reece finish up? We won't be long, I promise."
"Sugar you'll mess up your gown."
"I'll hold the train for her," Sara said, then nudged Annie and murmured, "Let's go."
They hurried from the dressing room into its adjoining sitting area and out into the hallway, headed for the door that opened onto the church's side lawn. It was hotter than blazes outside, a typical sultry Georgia June. After only five seconds on the small porch, Annie started to perspire beneath all her layers of lace.
Sara reached into the bodice of her dress and pulled out a tiny silver flask. "Here. You look like you could use this."
"You know I don't drink hard stuff."
"Today's a good day to start."
Annie couldn't disagree. She plucked the flask from her friend's hand, twisted off the cap, took a swig, coughed and choked as it burned its way down.
"You don't have to do this," Sara said. "I can tell you're having second thoughts. What's wrong?"
Annie took another smaller sip of Southern Comfort before handing the flask back to Sara. "After the rehearsal last night " She nibbled her lip.
"Tell me," Sara prodded.
Annie drew a steadying breath. "I'd left the church, but I forgot something so I came back. The only cars left in the parking lot were Lance's and Vivienne's."
"Vivienne? Your wedding planner?" When Annie nodded, Sara's eyes widened then narrowed. "I knew it." She jerked the flask up to her lips and tilted it back. "That asshole. What were they doing?"
"Nothing except talking inside the sanctuary. But he touched her arm and" When tears threatened, Annie averted her gaze to a thick grove of trees at the far edge of the parking lot. "The way Lance looked at her his body language "
"What, Annie?" Sara asked softly.
"He never looks at me like that." Her voice faltered. "He doesn't smile at me that way or reach out and touch me "
"Oh, honey." Sara offered the flask again.
Pressing her lips together, Annie shook her head and waved it away. Now that the words were spoken, the little whisper in her head that had warned her for months not to marry Lance grew louder. She had chosen not to listen to it before. Considering her history, she had chalked it up to staying single for so long and having cold feet when it came to marriage. Annie wasn't proud of the fact that she'd been engaged twice before and had broken off both relationships. But despite her growing reputation as a runaway bride, she couldn't ignore this whisper any longer. It was even more insistent than the ones from the past. "What should I do?" she squeaked and met Sara's gaze.
"What do you want to do?"
"My aunts Daddy they've gone to so much trouble and expense. And I've already backed out twice before."
Sara waved off her words. "Those didn't count. You called them off before anyone gave you so much as a butter dish. And you were a baby. You shouldn't have been thinking about marriage in the first place."
"I was twenty-five with Avery and thirty with Chuck."
"Thirty? Really?" Sara's wince was quick but not quick enough that Annie didn't see it. "I thought you were younger." She cleared her throat. "You did the right thing on both counts. Chuck's a workaholic and Avery can't get it up."
"Avery's impotent now? How do you know?"
"His ex has a big mouth."
Annie sighed. "My family thinks the world of Lance. They won't understand. They think he's the perfect catch." Everyone thought so.
Everyone except Sara.
"I'm not sure your wedding day is the appropriate time for me to say this " Sara hesitated, took another sip from the flask. "On second thought, maybe it's the perfect time. I don't understand why everyone can't see what he's been up to from the beginning."
"What are you talking about?"
She laid a hand on Annie's arm. "Lance doesn't act like a man who's in love, honey. I've always thought he was after your dad's business holdings and going through you to get them. If I were a betting woman, I'd place my money on Lance Holcomb as a schemer and an opportunist. I thought you'd see it eventually or I would've said something before you agreed to marry him. After that, I was afraid of ruining our friendship if I pointed it out."
Annie blanched. Then she had to speak. "You hinted. And I did pick up on the clues that something wasn't right. I just didn't want to believe it. I still don't. I can't believe he'd use me. Lance isn't like that." Or was he? Honestly, Annie wasn't sure. Sweat trickled down into her cleavage. She fanned her face and chest with a hand. "So what if he doesn't look at me in a certain way? Lance is good to me."
"Good isn't good enough. You deserve great." Sara tilted her head to one side. "I'll ask you what I ask my girls whenever they think they're in love. Does Lance wow you?"
"Wow me?" Annie thought about all that implied. She cared for Lance, was attracted to him, but did she love him? She wasn't even sure romantic love really existed. Not the kind you read about, the kind she had once believed in. Maybe caring for someone was love. "Did Craig wow you?" she asked Sara.
Sara's brows wiggled. "Did he ever. I remember the first time it hit me that I had to have him. I got this little zing in the pit of my stomach." She blushed beneath her scattering of freckles, then frowned at Annie's expression and added, "You don't have a clue what I'm talking about, do you?"
Annie didn't answer.
"That's what I was afraid of. If you'd felt that zing with Lance, you wouldn't have a single doubt in your mind about marrying him. Wild horses couldn't drag you away from the altar."
"But you were in your twenties when you married. Maybe a woman my age needs something different in a relationship. Something more stable and respect."
"Stability and respect are important." Sara smiled. "But even though Craig's physique looks more like the Pillsbury Doughboy's these days than Matthew McConaughey's, he still wows me, and I still need it."
A knock sounded behind them, and Annie turned to see Aunt Tawney at the window, waving her in. She mouthed okay to her aunt, then said to Sara, "Today more than ever, I miss my mother. She was the perfect wife. She'd know what I should do." Annie scratched beneath the itchy veil and it tilted precariously to one side of her head. "I need time to think."
Sara glanced at her watch. "You'd better hurry." She screwed the cap onto the flask and returned it to her bodice.
Annie grimaced at the sight of carrot-top Sara in the pansy-pink bridesmaid gown. Despite hovering tears, she managed a small laugh. "You sure you're not warning me off Lance just so you won't have to walk down the aisle in that dress?"
"Lord." Sara shook her head and tugged at her neckline.
"What was your aunt thinking?"
"She went a little overboard on the girly quotient."
"A little? This thing is gawd-awful."
Annie shrugged. "She and Tess only had sons. Tess couldn't care less about all this, but Tawney was so into the planning, I let her do her thing."
"Well, I'd wear the dress with a smile if you were marrying the right guy."
Straightening the pearl-studded bow centered between Sara's breasts, Annie blurted a laugh. "You are a good friend."
"Damn right I am." Sara winked, then they hooked arms and went inside.
On their way back to the dressing room, they spotted Charlene and Reece standing with Sara's husband at the opposite end of the hallway.