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"So you're the psychic."
Aislinn Flaherty had to make a massive effort to hold on to her pleasant expression in response to the drawled comment. She was doing this for her best friend, she reminded herself. Nic was so happy about her engagement, so pleased to be entertaining her future brother-in-law for the first time. Aislinn was going to do everything in her power to get along with him, even though she already suspected that it wasn't going to be easy.
"Someone has obviously been pulling your leg," she said lightly. "I've never even pretended to be a psychic."
"Hmm." Ethan Brannon was visibly unconvinced. Whatever he had been told"and Aislinn intended to grill Nic about that when they were alone"he apparently believed that she did, indeed, make claims to some sort of extrasensory abilities.
She had met Ethan only ten minutes earlier when she'd arrived at Nic Sawyer's house for this small dinner party. After introducing them, Nic and her fiancé" Ethan's brother, Joel"had moved into the kitchen to finish the dinner preparations, leaving Aislinn and Ethan to chat in the living room. This was Ethan's idea of a conversation starter, apparently.
In an attempt to dispel some of the awkwardness, she moved across the room to an antique buffet in one corner of the room. Nic had set the buffet up as a bar, and had encouraged Aislinn and Ethan to help themselves to a before-dinner drink while they waited. "Can I get you anything?"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever you're having."
She poured a glass of white wine for herself, a Chivas for him. Carrying both across the room, she handed him his glass. He frowned, looking suspiciously from the drink to her. "Parlor tricks?"
Sipping her wine, she lifted an eyebrow, then lowered the glass. "I beg your pardon?"
"I asked for whatever you were having, and you brought me my usual preference. I suppose Nic told you what I like?"
"Nic and I haven't talked about what you like or don't like to drink," she said, her brusque tone meant to hide a sudden wave of discomfort. "You just don't look like the white-wine type to me."
Still looking at her, he lifted the glass to his mouth. Despite the inexplicable antagonism she had felt from him from the start, she couldn't help noticing that his was a particularly nice mouth. He looked very much like a more sharply planed version of his younger brother. Both had crisp brown hair with a slight tendency to wave, clear hazel eyes and strong chins. Both were just under six feet and solidly built. Yet there was awell, a hardness about Ethan that seemed to be missing in his more easygoing younger brother.
Ethan was three years the elder. A self-employed small-business consultant, he lived in Alabama in a house that Nic had told her was rural and rather isolated. This was his first visit to Arkansas, though his brother had lived here for almost two years. Having met Ethan eight months ago, Nic seemed to like her future brotherin-law, but she had admitted that he wasn't the easiest man to get to know.
"Joel says Ethan was born grouchy," she had confided with a laugh. "But he's actually quite nice."
Aislinn was reserving judgment on that. "It was generous of you to offer to help Joel and his partner make their clinic run more efficiently," she said with a determined smile. "They're both wonderful pediatricians, but Joel claims they're both a little challenged in the business-management area."
Ethan shrugged. "I advised Joel to take some undergraduate business courses, but all he wanted to take were science classes. He spent so much time preparing for medical school that he forgot to prepare for the business of being a doctor."
"And that's what you do"teach small-business owners how to make their operations more profitable."
He nodded as he took another sip of his drink. "Joel told me you're very good at your job. He said you've helped a lot of people stay in business who would have had to declare bankruptcy if they hadn't hired you. He said some of them have actually become wealthy."
Aislinn swallowed a sigh. She had spent the day decorating a four-tier wedding cake with a couple of hundred tiny sugar roses entwined with frosting ivy vines. As tedious as that had been after a few hours, it was still less work than trying to draw conversation out of Ethan.
What a relief when Joel came back into the room to announce that dinner was ready. Both Aislinn and Ethan jumped to their feet with almost humorous eagerness to follow their host into the dining room.
Nic was just lighting the candles in the center of her mother's big mahogany table. She had been living in her widowed mother's house for more than two years, since Susan Sawyer had moved to Paris to live with her son, Paul, a U.S. Embassy employee. Nic had met Joel when he'd bought the house next door. Friendship had blossomed into much more, and now Nic and Joel were planning their wedding, which would take place in only a few days.
Taking her seat at the beautifully set table, Aislinn studied the happiness gleaming in her friend's darkblue eyes. Though Nic had been dating someone else when she met Joel, Aislinn had never expected Nic's relationship with Brad to last. Yet she'd had a feeling from the first time she had seen Nic and Joel together that the two were meant for each other. She hadn't said anything to Nic at the time, but she had done her part to nudge them together"with obvious success.
They talked about wedding plans as they began to eat, Nic sharing a few anecdotes about how difficult it had been to choose the colors and flowers and music and menus for her upcoming wedding. "I had no idea there was so much involved," she added with a groan. "I thought all I needed was a dress and a minister, but people kept adding things to my list."
"What people?" Ethan asked.
"My mother, mostly. She'll be here tomorrow, but in the meantime she's been making long-distance wedding plans and she calls to update me three or four times a day. Sometimes she forgets the time difference and she calls in the middle of the night to suggest a brilliant idea she just had. And then there were my friends at work, who all had suggestions they thought I should be thrilled about. And my friend Carole, who volunteered to coordinate everything during the ceremony and immediately turned into a wedding-planner tyrant."
Ethan shrugged. "You should have told them all to butt out. If you wanted just a dress and a minister, that's all you should have."
Nic wrinkled her nose in a good-natured smile. "It isn't that I mind so much. Everyone knows I'm hopeless when it comes to these girlie things, so they were only trying to help. There were just so many decisions and details. It was mind-boggling at times, but I think it will all work out. I kept it as simple as possible."
"Seems like a lot of trouble. You're just as married if you elope to a justice of the peace as you are after one of these fancy ceremonies."
This time it was Joel who responded to his brother's cynical observation. "That's true, but most people like to celebrate the occasion with friends and family. Nic's mother would have been terribly disappointed if we didn't make a bit of fuss"and, for that matter, so would ours. You know she's looking forward to it."
Aislinn was especially glad for her friend's sake that Joel's mother had endorsed the wedding. Elaine Brannon had made little secret of her reservations about the match when she had first met Nic eight months earlier.
She'd made it clear that it wasn't because she had anything against Nic personally. She had been concerned because Nic was so very different from her son's first wife, a supermodel-beautiful, socially conscious family counselor who had died in a tragic car accident less than a year after she and Joel were married. Elaine had wondered if her pediatrician son could be content with an impulsive, sometimes reckless small-town police officer who couldn't care less about being on the social A-list.
Once Joel had convinced his mother that he couldn't imagine being content without Nic in his future, Elaine had given her full approval to the match. All she had wanted, she assured them, was for Joel to find the happiness he deserved in life. If that was with Nic, then she was a welcome addition to the Brannon family.
Ethan mumbled something that seemed to imply that the mother-pleasing argument was no more likely to influence him than ordinary peer pressure.
"So you're saying when you get married, you just want a no-frills elopement?" Nic asked him with a grin.
He set down his fork and reached for his drink. "Marriage isn't on the agenda in my case. I've told you before that I can't imagine finding anyone who'd put up with me for long"or vice versa."
Aislinn's immediate reaction to that assertion was a vague feeling that he was wrong. Ethan would find someone, she sensed. And it would be a lifelong union.
She couldn't have explained how she knew that fact"and she did accept it as fact, since during her entire twenty-eight years she could count on one hand the number of times she had been wrong when her predictions had been accompanied by a particular feeling. It was not ESP, she had always insisted to anyone who questioned her. She just had better-developed intuition than most people.
Maybe she just paid more attention to her feelings, maybe she was just better at interpreting them"or maybe she was just a really good guesser. But she wasn't "different."
When they had all finished their chicken parmigiana, Nic rose to serve dessert. Reaching for plates, Aislinn offered to help.
"So?" Nic said when they were alone in the kitchen, loading plates into the dishwasher. "What do you think of Ethan?"
Aislinn shrugged. "He's okay, I guess. A little aloof." "I agree that he's reserved. But underneath, there's a nice guy. He's been very accepting of me, even when his mother was still trying to convince Joel that I was all wrong for him. And he's obviously fond of Joel, very supportive and protective"which, of course, I find sort of endearing."
"He seems to be suspicious of me"as if he thinks I'm trying to run some sort of a con on his family."
Reaching into a cabinet, Nic shrugged. "He's just naturally cautious around new people, I think. He acted a little suspicious of me at first, too. Not rude or confrontational or anything. Just wary. Reserving judgment until he knew what my motives were. Maybe he's been burned a few times."
"A few." It was more a confirmation than a guess. She didn't have the details, but she knew he'd been hurt.
Maybe Nic was right. Maybe that was the reason Ethan tended to be cautious. She would try to be patient during the getting-acquainted process. For Nic's sake. And if it turned out that she and Ethan still didn't like each other after the wedding, it was no big deal. He'd go back to Alabama and they would rarely see each other again.
A funny feeling went through her with that thought. Oddly enough, she had no clue of what it meant that time, if anything. It was just awell, almost like a mental shiver. Probably nothing at all, she assured herself.
She noticed that Nic was scooping whipped cream onto the first of four bowls of what appeared to be chocolate lava cake. "Leave the whipped cream off one of the desserts," she advised absently.
Nic didn't even blink at the suggestion. She simply loaded three whipped-cream-topped desserts and one without topping onto a tray. "Will you bring the coffee carafe?" she asked over her shoulder as she headed for the dining room.
The Brannon brothers were involved in a discussion of billing practices when Nic and Aislinn rejoined them. Aislinn poured coffee while Nic set the dessert tray on the table. "Is there anyone who doesn't like whipped cream?"
"That would be Ethan," Joel said with a grin. "He hates whipped cream."
Nic smiled at Aislinn before handing Ethan the untopped dessert. "Then I'm glad we left one plain."
Ethan gave Aislinn a hard look, but he didn't say anything as he dipped into his dessert. Concentrating on her own, she hoped the awkward evening would end soon.
Ethan was more than ready for this dinner party to be over. He didn't much care for dinner parties anyway, being the barbecue-and-beer type himself. He wasn't really into wedding planning, though he understood why Joel and Nic were preoccupied with that sort of thing now. And then there was the psychic.
Not that anyone had ever actually called her that. Joel and Nic had actually gone out of their way to avoid the label, claiming that Aislinn didn't like it. She simply had "feelings," they had assured him. She'd been gifted with a heightened intuition that made it wise to pay attention when she made predictions.
As proof, Joel had pointed to an accident Nic had been involved in while spending a few days in Alabama for Joel's high school reunion. It had been eight months ago, the weekend when Ethan had first met Nic. Aislinn