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"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Nick Jameson asked his best friend.
"I was going to ask you that," Josh Towers said as he peered into the mirror on the wall of the groom's dressing room, straightening a bow tie that was already perfectly straight. But then, nearly everything about Josh was perfectapart from his taste in women.
Nick sighed. "What do I need to know? I'm not getting married." Not ever.
"You missed the rehearsal, you know."
"Hey, I was on call last night." Nick shrugged, testing the seams on his tuxedo jacket. Tuxedos were called monkey suits for a reason, he thought. They were damned near as comfortable as straitjackets.
Not that he'd ever been in a straitjacket, but if for some reason he considered doing what Josh wasgetting marriedhe'd put himself in one.
"And what's so hard about what I have to do?" Nick asked his friend. He had stood up with Josh at his other weddingthe first one. He was such a hypocrite. How could he stand up for something in which he put no faith? "I just walk down the aisle with some girl on my arm."
"You're the best man," Josh reminded him. "You're in charge of the rings, too." He dug a pair of gold bands out of his pocket and handed them over.
The metal, although warm from Josh's pocket, chilled Nick's skin as the rings lay in his palm. The anxiety built in his throat, nearly choking him. He didn't even like to touch the things.
"Daddy," one of Josh's twin four-year-old sons said, "we're the ring bears."
"Funny, you don't look like bears," Nick teased, chucking the boy under the chin. Must have been Buzz since his black hair had been kept buzzed short for the past two years after he'dgotten hold of Josh's electric razor. TJ's hair was a little longer and moussed into half-inch spikes. Both twins had deep blue eyes, and now they stared up at him as if he were trying to make off with one of their Tonka trucks.
"Yeah," said TJ as he tugged on Nick's pant leg. The twins' tuxedos matched his, black with white pleated shirts, black bow ties and red cummerbunds. "We're supposed to carry the rings."
Nick would gladly have handed over the gold bands, but he doubted Josh would trust them to the devilish duo. The boys had a well-known penchant for "flushing" things, including their dad's pager and cell phone.
"Hey, buddy," Nick said to his best friend, "I'll let you handle this one." With a grin, he ducked out of the groom's room, leaving Josh alone with his unruly twin sons.
No wonder the guy had decided to marry a woman he barely knew. The boys had him outnumbered and he needed help fasthe needed a mother for his sons. Although Nick understood Josh's reasons, he didn't agree with his friend's decision. After the boys' mom had taken off when the twins were just babies, why would Josh ever trust another woman?
Nick would never make that mistake, not that he didn't think some women were worthy of trust. His dad swore his mother had been a paragon of virtue. Nick, himself, had never known her. He'd been younger than the twins when she died. It wasn't that he mistrusted all women, so much as that he really didn't trust himself. If a guy as smart as Josh hadn't had the sense to fall for the right woman, a guy like Nick didn't stand a chance.
Hearing the outraged howl that signaled a major temper tantrum in the groom's room, Nick walked farther away from the door. Sure, he could have gone inside and tried to help outhe was the best man, after all. But Nick was going to have the boys all to himself during Josh's honeymoon. If he hadn't already sworn off marriage and fatherhood, he was damned sure he would after two weeks with the twins.
Another door opened farther down the hall and a group of women spilled out. A young girl dressed like a miniature bride, a blonde, a redhead and a brunette, all dressed in shiny red strapless gowns. Which one of them was he supposed to walk down the aisle?
Maybe he should have come to the rehearsal, but Clover-ville, Michigan, was more than an hour from where he worked in Grand Rapids. He sighed. Now he wouldn't be working only in Grand Rapids; he and Josh would have a practice in Cloverville as soon as their new offices were finished. Personally, he hoped the contractors took their damn sweet time. If Josh wasn't his best friend, Nick wouldn't have let the other man talk him into opening their office here. He had no interest in Cloverville.
Then the brunette turned, her rich brown hair moving like a silk curtain around her bare shoulders. His fingers itched with the need to touch it, to see if her hair could possibly be as soft as those chocolate-colored strands appeared. Her gaze met his then, and he realized that her eyes were as deep a brown as her hair.
Nick's chest clenched and his breath caught, as if he'd slammed on the brakes and his seat belt had pulled too tight. Heat flushed his face and dampened his palms. So that he wouldn't lose the rings before the ceremony, he wrapped his fingers tightly around them and shoved them deep into his pocket. Even his hand shook. What the hell had just happened to him?
DR.NICK JAMESON. Colleen McClintock had known, of course, that he would be at the wedding. He was, after all, the best man. Did he recognize her? Colleen doubted it. How could he recognize someone he had never even noticed before?
And yet he saw her now, staring at her so intently that goose bumps rose on the bare skin of her shoulders and arms. She regretted talking Brenna out of matching wrapsthe maid of honor had been right. Colleen should have risked fumbling the flowers or tripping on the shawl for a little more cover-up.
But between her bad luck and her innate clumsiness, she hadn't wanted to risk embarrassing herself or her sister. That was probably why Molly had chosen her longtime friend Brenna Kelly as maid of honor instead of Colleen. She'd worried that her little sister would mess up her important day. Or maybe she'd never considered Colleen at all. Kind of like Dr. Nick Jameson hadn't noticed she existed until today.
Was it the red dress Brenna had chosen? The strapless sheath of satin had somehow produced curves Colleen hadn't been aware she possessed. And the color was so vibrantfor the first time in a long while she didn't feel invisible.
"We need to get lined up," Brenna ordered the others. The wedding party immediately responded to her command. Even Colleen's headstrong teenage brother, Rory, who never paid attention to anyone, now meekly joined the group outside the bride's dressing room. Maybe that was why Molly had chosen the redhead as maid of honor. People listened to Brenna Kelly, whereas they rarely heard Colleen.
Of course that was her fault. She'd always been quiet so that her older sister and her friends wouldn't notice her tagging along. But Molly had never made her feel unwelcome, and over the years her friends had become Colleen's, as well. Brenna Kelly with her gorgeous red hair and generous curves, and Abby Hamilton, the petite, vivacious blonde, were the best friends Colleen had ever known. Eric South, the lone male member of their group of friends, had backed out of the wedding party just before the rehearsal dinner the previous evening.
So Colleen's older brother, Clayton, had been left with an additional responsibility. As well as filling in for their dad, who'd died eight years ago, and giving away the bride, he also had to walk Abby down the aisle in Eric's place. Clayton probably would have preferred walking Abby out the door. He'd always blamed her, unjustly, for any trouble his sisters had gotten into. He had already pulled Abby aside for a private conversation, no doubt warning her not to start anything.
But Colleen hoped that Abby would start somethingwith Clayton. He needed someone like Abby to loosen him up, to teach him how to play. He'd had to grow up far too fast when their father diedthey'd all had to grow up. But Abby, who'd lived away from Cloverville for the past eight years, swore she and her daughter had only come home for the wedding. Abby edged closer to the rest of the wedding party, but early guests had gathered around her and her four-year-old daughter, the miniature bride, clad in a gorgeous white dress.
What about Molly? Had she managed to get into her wedding gown? She'd shooed everyone out of the dressing room before anyone could help her. Colleen turned back toward the closed door. Nerves fluttered in her stomach. Poor Molly.
Even though she hadn't admitted it out loud, Molly clearly had been having doubts about getting married. Despite being three years younger, Colleen was close to her sister. Actually, Molly had always been more friend than sister. She'd never resented Colleen shadowing her. Why now, when Molly should have been leaning on her friends for support, had she begged them to leave her all alone?
"Hello," a deep voice murmured, pulling Colleen's attention back to him.
Dr. Nick Jameson had crossed the hall and now stood in front of her. Even in heels she had to tip her head back a bit to focus on his face and stop thinking about how his broad shoulders filled out his black tux. While he looked handsome enough in scrubs, he was completely devastating in a tuxedo. Sun streaked through the church doors at the end of the hall and glinted off his golden-blond hair so that Colleen had to close her eyes for a moment.
Dizziness rushed over her, but instead of seeing spots behind her closed lids she saw his face, his pale green eyes staring down at her.
"Hi," he said, his voice a bit hoarse. "I missed the rehearsal. Any idea which bridesmaid I walk down the aisle?"
Colleen blinked her eyes open again and met his gaze. In his eyes there was a flirtatious twinkle. All rational thought fled her mind.
Probably used to women's tongue-tied reactions, he grinned, and a deep dimple pierced one lean cheek. "I'm the best man."
He said it as if he was claiming more than his title in the wedding party. Although his arrogance came as no surprise, Colleen lifted a brow.
"Then you'll walk down the aisle with the maid of honor," she said. The haughty tone of her own voice surprised her, and she swallowed a shocked gasp. Usually she spoke so soft and quietly that people asked her to repeat herself, if they even realized she'd said something in the first place.
"I hope that's you," he said, flashing the dimpled grin at her.
The volunteers and nurses at the hospital in Grand Rapidswhere Nick was on staff and Colleen volunteeredwould have been envious of Colleen receiving one of "Dr. Yummy's" rare grins. Her knees, and other parts of her, quivered in reaction. But when she opened her mouth, the haughty voice said, "No, I'm not the maid of honor."
He pressed a hand against his heart as if she'd hurt him, but then he flashed the grin again and teased, "So you're not a maid of honor?"
Honor? An honorable person wouldn't have let a friend take the blame for something she'd done, no matter what the circumstances. While Colleen fumbled for a response to his flirty question, Brenna bustled up.
"Places, everyone," she barked.
NICK KICKED HIMSELF FOR whatever he'd said that had drained all the color from the brunette's face and left her eyes dark, wide and haunted. She was so young, probably only in her early twenties. What could she possibly know of dishonor?
"You're Dr. Jameson," said the redheaded bridesmaid who'd just joined them. She didn't even give him a chance to respond before nudging him toward the front of the line.
"We can switch, if he wants," muttered the teenage boy Nick had met briefly before the kid, Rory McClintock, had skipped outside for air. The curly-haired kid took Nick's place at the brunette's side. "It's lame to walk my sister down the aisle."
The boy was the bride's brother, Nick knew. So the brown-haired bridesmaid must be her younger sister. All the McClintocks had the same basic coloringdark hair, dark eyes. Nick could barely remember the bride's name, let alone the names of all of her relatives. Of course Josh hadn't known the girl, Mandy Mindy Mollythat was it. Josh hadn't known Molly very long before he'd proposed. Not nearly long enough to decide to spend the rest of his life with her. But then, given Josh's history, maybe he'd resigned himself to take however long he could get.
Nick shook his head. He'd rather live alone than trust someone to love him forever. But Josh didn't have the option of living alonehe had twin boys to raise. Buzz and TJ exploded into the hallway in a tangle of arms, legs and raised voices. With one word from the redhead, however, they fell into line.
As the first notes of the wedding march pealed out, the maid of honor grabbed Nick's arm and started down the aisle. Nick quickened his pace, to keep from being dragged. He glanced toward her and saw that no smile brightened her face or eyes. Her attitude matched his. Let's get this over with.
In a minute they'd reached the altar and she released his arm. Before stepping to the bride's side, she stopped in front of Josh, who was waiting next to the minister. She drew an audible, shaky breath and then moved aside as Nick took his position behind Josh.
Since they'd been kids, they'd watched each other's backs: teaming up to conquer playground bullies in elementary school, studying together to pass physics in college, then supporting each other through med school. Now, in their venture into private practice, they remained best friends. Nick patted Josh's shoulder, which was tense beneath his palm. Maybe he'd finally realized what a mistake he was making. "You can stop this," Nick murmured, under the swell of organ music.
Josh's head swiveled toward him. He'd heard Nick's comment and from his glare he didn't think much of it. Of course Josh was too nice a guy to back out at the altar and humiliate the bride. The groom turned to face the aisle and so did Nick.
The older brother of the bride, whom Nick had also met in the groom's room, walked toward them with the blonde. When he left her, almost reluctantly, at the altar, he walked past Josh and then Nick before continuing around the side of the pews and heading for the back. To get the bride. Josh had explained that the bride's dad had died eight years ago. So apparently Clayton McClintock pulled double duty as a grooms-man and stand-in for father of the bride.
Nick turned and focused on the brunette who walked down the aisle now, holding her younger brother's arm. She wouldn't have been that old when her dad died, probably not much older than her teenage brother was now. Nick winced in commiserationnot over his mother, whom he really didn't remember. He'd lost someone else close to him when he'd been a teenager, however. If not for Josh and his friendship, Nick probably wouldn't have survived that dark period. He owed Josh, and opening an office in Cloverville was small repayment.
Who had she had to lean on when her dad diedher family, friends? Was she like him, in that she had never completely recovered from her loss? Maybe that was why, despite her haughty tone, he'd picked up on vulnerabilityeven a fragilityin her expressive eyes and delicate face.
The sunshine streaming through the stained-glass windows highlighted the deep brown of her shimmering hair. His heart shifted, pressing against his ribs. Damn, she was beautiful.
What was her name? Had he ever heard it? Probably. But he hadn't cared. Then.
Now he cared too much. As she released her brother's arm, she peered briefly at Nick through her thick black lashes. Blood rushed through his veins, and he felt light-headed.
No, he didn't care. He just hadn't had enough sleep or food in the past weekdamn crazy shifts at the hospital. Maybe Josh was right; maybe the lighter hours of a private practice would be better for them both. Opening their own office wasn't a new idea. They'd planned it since medical school. But Nick hadn't thought they'd make the move quite so soon.
The twins headed down the aisle next, having a tug-of-war over the ring bearer's pillow; once white, it was now smudged with small, chocolate fingerprints. Josh needed more time with his kids. But what would Nick do with extra free time besides sleep? With an effort, he kept his focus on the aisle, refusing to give in to the urge to glance across the altar at the lissome brunette.
Behind the boys, the flower girl walked at a much slower pace, carefully dropping red rose petals onto the white runner. Laughter at her diligence rippled over the wedding guests like the wave at a football game. The organ music intensified dramatically. Nick shuddered at what he'd always considered the ominous tone of the wedding march. The guests rose and turned toward the back of the church.
Nick sure hoped he was wrong about Josh rushing to the altar. He wished a long, happy marriage for his best friend with a woman who would always love him and his sons. He hoped Molly McClintock was that woman.
Like the guests, Nick turned toward the bride's entrance. But the only person he saw was Clayton McClintock, standing alone on the rose-strewn white runner.
Where the hell is the bride? The thought chased through Nick's mind as the organ music halted abruptly. Shocked murmurs rose from the guests, quieting to hushed whispers.