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Chessie Burton turned the sign in the window from Open to Closed and wearily began making her way toward the stairs to her apartment, situated above Second Chance Bridal and Wedding Planners.
Eight months had all but flown past since Chessie and her friend Marylou had decided they'd expand Chessie's business by also offering wedding-planning services to their clients.
The logic had been unassailable.
First-time brides often took a year or more to plan their weddings; they had family and lots of pals to help them make their big day perfect.
Second-chance brides? Not so much. Second-chance brides often had kids, car pools, soccer practice or ballet class, a full-time job and a much shorter time frame between "Okay, let's do it" and "I do." This was why Chessie always maintained such an extensive in-stock bridal-gown selection; ordering in a gown that might take six to twelve weeks to arrive often didn't work well for second-chance brides.
So, in theory, branching out to wedding planning had seemed a great idea. Marylou could be very persuasive, and thanks to her husband Ted's considerable wealth and eagerness to please his wife in all things, financing the project had been no problem.
In practice, however, the idea had turned into a case of too much of a good thing. Chessie and Marylou had found themselves pretty much on call 24/7, which didn't make Marylou's husband all that happy, and Chessie was spending entirely too many nights sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her TV, dealing with trays of sugared almonds and net doilies and tiny little bows and a hot-glue gun.
It was great that Elizabeth had stepped in to replace Eve, and Missy, their teenage part-timer, had shown a remarkable talent for concocting spreadsheets that kept each wedding's to-do list organized and up-to-date. Berthe, longtime Second Chance Bridal seamstress, had volunteered to help out on the sales floor as well, and Marylou often seemed to be everywhere at once, putting out small fires before they could become conflagrations.
But none of that got the boxes and boxes of supplies out of Chessie's apartment, her beloved private sanctuary, and she had adamantly refused to relocate somewhere other than the huge Victorian home she had bought and furnished and simply adored.
Chessie waded through the crowded living room, eyeing the boxes holding three new albums of wedding-invitation samples that had arrived a week ago, promising herself she'd unbox them tonight after she'd eaten dinner if she could find the kitchen. Thank God they were going to start that addition soon, to make a dedicated workspace and also to house all of this stuff.
She paused in the hallway and turned to look at her reflection in the full-length mirror that hung there because she'd hadn't found any better place for it.
She looked tired. She was tired. Her coppery hair had pretty much outgrown its careful shaping, and looked more wild than artfully disheveled. She put her hands to her pale cheeks, wondering when last she'd seen the sun, and sighed as she looked at the huge blue eyes that were looking back at her, shiny with tears.
Rick was back in town. Chessie knew this because she'd found a note next to the telephone, scribbled by Missy. Rick was back in town and wanted to meet with her, have dinner. His phone number was scribbled beneath the message. She knew the number. He was back living with his parents. Was that pitiful, some sort of twisted poetic justice, or was it more pitiful that she still had the number committed to memory?
The last time she'd seen him had been six years, three months and twelve days agoshe'd worked that out in her head earlier. They'd just left the rehearsal dinner, her maid of honor and best friend walking with them into the parking lot. He'd apologized for not driving Chessie home, but he had something he had to do. He'd intimated that it was a surprise, and she'd been certain it had something to do with their honeymoon in Cape Cod, because he'd hinted as much.
She'd laughed, told him she loved him, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him soundlya kiss he'd returned with considerable fervor and a bit of pleasant groping that suggested the last thing he wanted was to leave her alone for the rest of the evening. Then she watched him walk toward his car.
And out of her life.
"How do you do that, Rick?" she asked the empty apartment as she entered the kitchen, flipping on the overhead light. "How do you all but make love to one woman, while another woman is standing there watching, the same woman you'll be taking to Mexico with you on a midnight flight? How does someone's best friend watch something like that, and then drive her supposed best friend home and say she'll be back in the morning to help her get dressed for the wedding? What kind of monsters were you, both of you? And what kind of blind victim was I, not to have seen it all coming?"
It had been years since Chessie had thought about either Rick or Diana. She wished she wasn't thinking about either of them right now, but sometimes a mind wouldn't turn off just because you wanted it to. So, as she spread peanut butter on two slices of fresh bread and then slapped the two pieces together, she attempted to concentrate on the positives.
She wouldn't have Second Chance Bridal if it weren't for Rick and Diana. She's started the business with her own unused wedding gown as the first piece of stock, and it had turned out to be the very first gown she'd sold. She loved her business, loved the friends she'd made, the life she'd built.
She wouldn't have any of that if she'd married Rick.
Chessie took a bite out of her sandwich and then quickly poured herself a glass of iced tea, hoping to get that bite unstuck from the roof of her mouth. Jelly helped to cut peanut butter so that it wasn't so sticky, wasn't a choking hazard. She knew that, but she'd forgotten. Granted, she didn't want to see Rick again, but suicide by peanut butter wasn't on her agenda, either.
Still munching on her dinner, Chessie threaded her way to the bedroom, stripped off her clothing and stepped under the shower, swallowing her last bite of the sandwich.
Once in the T-shirt and running shorts that served as both casual wear and pajamas, her hair still damp and forming itself into the natural burnished curls she'd have to straighten in the morning, she retraced her steps to the living room, glared at the three large boxes that seemed to be staring right back at her and searched the floor for the TV remote. Maybe she'd just lie down and watch a sitcom or something before she got to work, because it was going to be another long night.
Not that she was lonely. She was simply alone. Being alone hadn't been her choice six years ago, but it was now.
Jace Edwards considered himself a self-made man. He'd begun working construction as a teenager, and over the ensuing years he'd learned how to do any job the members of his crew could do, often better. It hadn't happened quickly or easily, had probably helped destroy his marriage, but the Edwards Construction Company was still his baby, and he was a very proud father.
It was just past 7:00 a.m. and he'd already had his third cup of coffee. He made it a rule to always be on-site for the first day of any new job, and today's job hadn't been an exception, even if the idea of running into Marylou Smith-Bitters's business partner wasn't something he was looking forward to, not by the way Marylou had described Ms. Chessie Burton.
It wasn't any one thing Marylou had said, but more of an impression he'd got listening to her. Chessie Burton was driven, successful, particular, didn't want her customers disturbed with a lot of noise and was extremely concerned with the amount of dust and mess that might accompany the construction.
As if construction could be kept noise- and dust-free. Get real, lady!
If he hadn't needed the work, he might have turned down the job. Second Chance Bridal? Why didn't they call it what it really was? Strike Two Bridal. The whole concept was pretty creepy when you got right down to it. Or maybe his own Strike One had made him leery of any place that catered to people like himselfmarital losers.
In any case, in his mind, Jace had conjured up a middle-aged woman with her hair in a bun and a pair of reading glasses hanging from a strap around her neck. She'd be on his case for the month it would take to put the two-story addition on the house that, if Jace were the owner, would have remained exactly the way it was, which was perfect. He loved these old Queen Anne Victorians, even owned one himself.
"You want to tell me again how we're going to build everything first, and only then break through the walls?"
Jace turned to look at his head framer, who was holding the unrolled plans in his hands and looking confused.
"I know it's the hard way, Carl. The back of the house consists of the owner's bedroom and bath upstairs and, downstairs, the room where they store the wedding gowns and all that stuff. We can't just rip out those walls and have them open to the elements until we get the job done. Not to mention the noise."
"Uh-huh," Carl said, nodding. "But we are going to strip off the siding before the new walls go up, get rid of the shutters, the rain gutters, right? Tie in to the electricity and plumbing, since there's going to be another bathroom? Then just cut in the two doors giving access to the building, right, cutting through those two existing windows? No way we can do any of that without some noise and dirt. We're not knitting a sweater here, Jace. The owner knows that, right?"
Before Jace could answer there came the shrill beeping sound of a warning signal and the rumble from the engine of a piece of heavy equipment backing up into the yard along the cement driveway. This was followed hard by the squeal of massive air brakes, the grinding noise of gears meshing, lifting and then loudly depositing the large metal Dumpster that would hold the construction waste. The ground beneath them actually shook a little from the impact.
"I'd say she does now," Jace said, grinning. "Okay, get the guys up on the ladders and start stripping off that siding. I'll be back later to see how it's going."
He'd almost made it to the alley at the back of the yard, and to his car, when he saw her. Her appearance hit his brain in separate bursts of information. Coppery curls tumbling wildly around a pale oval face. Eyes as blue as the summer sky and big as quarters at the moment. A slim, trim, not-too-tall body, with pinup-calendar-worthy legs that went up to her ears. A chest that heaved up and down interestingly as she seemed to be trying to catch her breath. She wasn't wearing a bra under that T-shirt, either. Nice. Bare feet. A TV remote clutched in her right hand.
A TV remote?
"Wh-what do you think you're doing?" Nice voice, he added mentally. Sort of husky. Sexy. Possibly slightly tinged with homicidal rage, but still sexy.
"UhJace?" Carl said, backing up as the woman advanced on him. "You wanna come back here a minute?"
Jace tipped back his baseball cap as he approached, holding on to the bill as he said, "Ma'am. Your neighbor didn't tell you we were beginning construction today?"
"Neighbor? What neighbor? I" she gestured rather wildly toward the building "I own this place."
This was Chessie Burton? For the next four weeks or so, he could come to the job site and she'd be here? Every day? And who said the gods weren't kind?
"So you're Chessie Burton? Marylou's business partner?"
"No. Marylou is my business partner. I'm the senior partOh, who cares? I live here. You should have checked with me before you started playing the "Anvil Chorus" on the back of my house."
He could kiss her. Right here, right now, for no good reason he could think of, Jace really wanted to kiss her. She was so damned cute
"What's the matter? Why are you grinning like that? And another thingwho the hell are you? Do you know it's only seven freaking o'clock in the morning? What do you do for an encoremarch a brass band through here? Maybe some elephants bringing up the rear?"
"Name's Jace. Jace Edwards. Elephants? Let me guess. Not a morning person, are you?" Jace asked, doing his best not to laugh. God, she was magnificent. A little on the wacko side of normal, maybe, but he hadn't seen anything this good in the morningor at any time, come to think of itin a long, long time. Maybe never.
She rolled those big blue eyes. "Oh, he made a funny. Ha. Ha."
The sound of industrious hammering and ripping of siding quickly followed. Clearly, Carl and the crew had heard enough.
She waved the TV remote in Jace's face, then seemed to realize she was holding what might be construed as a weapon, and lowered her arm. "Make.them.stop."
"You don't want the addition?" He was being mean to a clearly upset woman, but he couldn't help himself.
"Noyes! Yes, I want the addition. I just don't want it at seven o'clock in the morning. I don't want anything at seven o'clock in the morning, at least not until I've had my coffee, damn it! And stop grinning at me like that. What did you say your name was again?"
"Jace," he told her, this time leaving off the Edwards as he held out his hand to her. "And you're Chessie Burton. I think Marylou and I had some miscommunication when we met here two weeks ago to plan out the job. In a couple of ways."
"Uh-huh," Chessie said, holding out her own hand, and then quickly transferring the remote to her left palm before she shook hands with him.