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The petite bride stood stock-still, her chapel-length beaded train sagging in the damp gutter while her white fingers clutched a two-tiered wedding cake. She stared long and hard into a vacant store window.
It wasn't a usual fall sight in Hobin, Wisconsin. Brides tended to marry in spring. Even then, Hobin was hardly the bride capital of the state or the United States. Hawaii took that prize with its tropical sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, surprisingly acing Hobin's snowbound winters and late-spring flowerings.
Still, in the last one hundred and fifty years, many a local bride had stood in the old log church but none that Marc Olsen could remember had stood alone on an almost deserted Main Street, late on a Sunday afternoon. But then again apart from his annual Thanksgiving visit, he'd been gone from Hobin a long time and things might have changed.
He glanced up and down the familiar wide empty road with the same shop fronts that he'd known as a kid. Nope, nothing had changed. The realization both annoyed and soothed him. He took a second look, this time casting his gaze around trying to locate the groom. A stray bridesmaid or ring bearer. Anyone? No one.
He was used to odditieshe'd shed his small-town boyhood years ago, moving to New York City where a bride alone on a street wouldn't even make a ripple in the bustling Broadway crowd. But in Hobin it was more than odd. The bride wasn't moving. Perhaps it was performance art. In Hobin? Nah.
Completely intrigued, he gave his curiosity free rein. It was all about curiosity and had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that investigating the lone bride would further delay his cross-six-state journey and postpone his arrival at his sister's house. He knew that once he stepped over Lori's front stoop, the snare of family would clamp on to him like the grip of a Denver boot, which was why for the last twelve years he'd always arrived with a set departure date.
He crossed the street in a few brisk strides, with the chill of the air easily penetrating his light cotton shirt. He regretted not grabbing his cashmere sweater from his Porsche.
The bride had her back to him and as he got closer he realized the wedding dress hadn't come off the rack, but nor was it a Vera Wang creation. The faint sepia color hinted that many years had passed since it had first elegantly draped itself over a bride. Now the dress hung from sharp and narrow shoulders which seemed undecided about their posture, hovering between rigid and rolled back, and decidedly slumped.
On hearing his footsteps, she swung around, the unusual cake with its delicate lace icing wobbling precariously on its sugar pillars.
He grinned, deciding she was a cross between the bride in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Miss Havisham. The round neckline of the dress sat flat and puckered as if seeking breasts to give it the form it deserved and a strand of uneven-sized pearls graced a slender neck which moved into a pointed chin. Stray wisps of wayward auburn hair stuck to hollow cheeks, and a smattering of freckles trailed across a snub nose that some might at a pinch call cute. Black smudges hovered at the top of her cheeks but it was hard to tell if they were caused by fatigue or the remnants of day-old mascara.
He'd never seen a more homely bride in need of a makeover. This was definitely performance art. It seemed a shame that she'd gone to all this trouble on the one day of the week country people spent at home with their families.
"You seem to have lost the chapel." He extended his arm indicating the direction. "It's another mile down the road."
Marc was used to a wide-eyed reaction from women, often followed by a come-hither smile. He knew this was nothing to do with him per se, and everything to do with the random collision of DNA combined with his Nordic heritage. He often wished he wasn't the walking cliche of blond hair and blue eyes but he wouldn't trade his height for anything. But this woman's vivid turquoise gaze hit him with a clear and uncompromising stare which combined irony with hovering hints of bewilderment.
"Yeah, thanks for the tip." Flat, elongated vowels clanged against the crisp fall air, falling from a mouth that on second glance was surprisingly plump given all the other sharp angles on the rest of her body. "I didn't think men did directions."
The truism made him laugh. "We happily give them. We just don't ask for them." Her accent intrigued him. "You're not from around here?"
"I guess that depends on your definition. If ten thousand kilometers is outside the county limits then no, I'm not from around here." She held the hexagonal iced cake out toward him. "Hold the cake for me."
As an award-winning architect, Marc was more used to giving orders to his staff and contractors rather than taking them. But this situation was completely bizarre and he found himself receiving the cake without a murmur, his fingers gripping the gold-embossed foil board.
"Don't drop it."
The comment reminded him of growing up in a houseful of organizing women. "Are the English always this bossy?"
Surprisingly well-shaped eyebrows shot skyward. "The English are far too polite for their own good. Australians, on the other hand, call a spade a spade." She fisted a large amount of material into both hands and lifted the skirt free of the sidewalk, the action exposing slender ankles as she marched up to the shop window.
Surprise jolted him. Given the state of her hair and makeup and the whole "disarray bride" look she had going, he'd expected to see heavy work boots on her feet. Instead, a tiny strap of golden leather sparkling with rhinestones daintily caressed her slender foot and coiled up past a shapely ankle before disappearing tauntingly underneath the satin dress. He idly wondered what the rest of her legs looked like. "So you're a Down-Under bride?"
"I'm definitely down." The muttered words seemed more for herself than him as she pressed her face to the window and peered into the empty store. She spun back toward him, confusion bright in her eyes. "This is 110 West Main Street?"
He tilted his head to the faded numbers above the door. "That's what I'm reading."
White teeth tugged on her plump bottom lip as she firmly shook the door handle with her ringless left hand.
"Are you lost?"
"I didn't think I was. This is Hobin, Wisconsin, isn't it?"
"I expected it to be bigger."
He gave a wry grin. "Most people do but not a lot has changed in over one hundred and fifty years."
She took another look through the window. "And I expected this building to be a house not an empty shop."
The cake surprisingly weighed as much as two house bricks and he readjusted his grip. "This building has always been a shop, but it's been empty since old Mr. Erickson passed away more than a year ago."
"So where's Barry?" She visibly sagged, and the material of her dress rose up, as if trying to envelop her. "I can't believe I've been up thirty hours, flown halfway around the world safeguarding Nana's cake, and driven hours only to arrive and have the wrong address. This didn't happen to Nana." The words poured out on a rising inflection, ending on the hint of a wail.
Her general dishevelment suddenly made a bizarre sort of sense. He had three sisters and knew intimately that their brains, although equally intelligent, ran along a completely different track from mena track that never ran straight. Australian women were obviously no different. "Don't tell me you've flown all the way from Australia in a wedding dress?"
She rolled her sea-green eyes and shot him a look that severely questioned his intelligence. "No, Blondie, I haven't. I put it on at the service station in the last town to surprise Barry."
Blondie? No one had given him a nickname since high school. He matched her eye roll with one raised brow. "Surprise him or scare him?"
"Hah hah, and I'd been told the Yanks didn't have a sense of humor." She crossed her arms against the cold and tossed her head. "I was going to bring my personal hairstylist and makeup artist with me but I thought Posh and Paris needed them more."
He laughed. It had been worth crossing the street just for the entertainment but he could see that she was barely keeping her teeth from chattering and was obviously lost. "Who is it you're looking for?"
"Barry Severson, importer and exporter, and my fiance."
Marc had never been engaged and had no intentions of ever getting that closely entangled with any woman but some things were well-known factsa groom met his overseas bride. "Why didn't he meet your plane?"
Her moment of spunk faded and an aura of fragility hovered around her making her seem smaller than her five feet four inches. "Because, like I said, I'm a surprise." She plucked at the folds of satin. "You know, the girl jumping out of the cake, only I'm the bride jumping in holding the cake."
He tried to keep his disbelief out of his voice just in case he'd missed a vital piece of information. "You're arriving unannounced to get married?"
She shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea last week when I was at home in Narranbool."
It sounded completely crazy and he'd always thought Australians had common sense. But this womanwho right now looked more like a child playing dress-upobviously lacked that gene. Her vulnerability tried to tug at him but he immediately shrugged it away. He'd given up looking after needy women years ago. Still, the good manners drilled into him as a boy won out. "You can use my cell to call him."
A spark of hope lit up her almond-shaped eyes making the blue-green color shimmer like phosphorescence. Her smudged makeup combined with her thick, dark lashes gave her a sultry "bedroom eyes" look that was unexpected.
"Thanks, but this town isn't very big so you'd know where Barry lives, right? I'd still love to surprise him and you've already proved yourself to be good at directions." A cajoling smile danced along her face hinting at what she might look like when she wasn't totally jet-lagged.
"I'm sorry but I haven't lived here for years so I don't know your Barry."
She abruptly straightened up and hooked the train over her arm, the action all purpose and intent. "But you know someone who would know, right?"
He sighed, wishing he'd stayed in the car, wishing he'd ignored the whim to investigate. Wishing he'd stayed focused on the task at hand like he always did because although Lori and his sisters would spend the entire holiday grilling him on his life, unlike this woman, none of them was a nutcase. He really didn't want to get involved. But her expression was so full of expectation, so certain he could solve her problem that it took him straight back to when he was seventeen and pretty much raising his sisters. They'd specialized in similar looks.
When his friends had all been heading off to college he'd been up to his neck bussing tables and working every odd job that came his way, trying to be the head of the family when the man who'd so loved the job had died. Died way too young when his tractor had rolled, crushing him underneath its bright green metal, stealing a husband, a father and the essence of the woman who'd loved him.
Over the next five years Marc had cut out and stapled Halloween costumes together, negotiated the bewildering aisle of feminine hygiene products in the supermarketwho knew a basic product with one job came with so many different names and capabilitiesand mediated over everything from clothing disputes to boys. They borrowed his dress shirts, used his razor and lost his favorite sweatshirt. He'd marched pimply pubescent boys out of bedrooms and enforced every dating curfew even though it had meant enduring slamming doors and screams of "It's so not fair." Many times he'd yelled the same back.
At twenty-two he'd finally got away. Now he had an easy and dependent-free city life where not even a goldfish required his help. A place where no one else's toothbrush ever sat beside his, no one borrowed his clothes and the only person he shopped for was himself. He never got involved and that wasn't about to change.
Take the bride to Norsk's. The idea immediately relaxed him. If he took her to the diner he could leave her with Astrid who'd sort things out and he'd still make it to Lori's in time for supper. "I know exactly the person to ask, but can I put this cake down first?"
Contrition creased her forehead. "Oh, sorry. It's deceptively heavy, isn't it? But that's what you get when you combine over three kilograms of the best Australian sun-dried fruit with rum, whiskey and brandy." She reached forward to lift the second tier off its pillars and the ill-fitting dress fell forward.
He caught the hint of creamy lace and hoped Barry was going to appreciate all the effort she'd put into this insane escapade. "That's a lot of liquor."
A rich, full-bodied laugh carried back toward him as she walked toward a silver hatchback with a distinctive black-and-yellow rental company sticker. "Nana's cakes were legendary and always full of booze. It acts as a preservative and that's why they can travel so well. There's a special box for it in the boot."
"Excuse me?" His ears were adjusting to her accent but he thought she'd just said boot.
She popped the trunk open and lowered the top tier into a box.
"That would be the trunk," Marc corrected.
"Really? I guess that's because it would have originally carried trunks." She relieved him of the cake and carefully placed it into the second box. "Nana had a real trunk with a curved top and I used to love playing in it when I was a little girl." A dreamy look crossed her face and she seemed to lose herself in memories.
He leaned against the car. "So why is it called a boot in Australia?"
The dreamy expression faded, overtaken by something far more prosaic. "Probably because of the convicts with their stolen booty." She straightened up and extended her hand, her freckles more pronounced with the cold. "Matilda Geoffrey, direct descendent of convicts."
He smiled and gripped her hand. "Marc Olsen, direct de-scendent of Viking marauders. Let's go and ask the town oracle about this fiance of yours."