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The Convenient Groom
By Denise Hunter
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Denise Hunter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe red light on Kate Lawrence's cell phone blinked a staccato warning. But before she could retrieve the message, her maid of honor, Anna Doherty, waved her pale arms from the beach, stealing her attention.
Anna's smooth voice sounded in her headset. "Kate, can you come here? We've got a few glitches."
"Be right there." Kate tucked her clipboard in the crook of her elbow, took the steps down Jetty Pavilion's porch, and crossed the heel-sinking sand of the Nantucket shoreline. In six hours, thirty-four guests would be seated there in the rows of white chairs, watching Kate pledge her life to Bryan Montgomery under a beautiful hand-carved gazebo.
Where was the gazebo anyway? She checked her watch, then glanced toward the Pavilion, where workers scurried in white uniforms. No sign of Lucas.
She approached Anna, who wore worry lines as naturally as she wore her Anne Klein pantsuit. Anna was the best receptionist Kate could ask for. Her capable presence reassured the troubled couples she ushered through Kate's office.
Right now, Anna's long brown hair whipped across her face like a flag gone awry, and she batted it from her eyes with her freckled hand. "Soiree's just called. Their delivery truck is in for service, and the flowers will be a little late. Half an hour at the most."
Kate jotted the note on her schedule. "That's okay." She'd factored in cushion time.
"Murray's called, and the tuxes haven't been picked up except for your dad's."
Bryan and his best man had been due at Murray's at nine thirty. An hour ago. "I'll check on that. What else?"
Anna's frown lines deepened, and her eyes blinked against the wind. "The carriage driver is sick, but they're trying to find a replacement. The Weatherbys called and asked if they could attend last minute—they were supposed to go out of town, but their plans changed."
Kate nodded. "Fine, fine. Call and tell her they're welcome. I'll notify the caterer."
"Your publicist—Pam?—has been trying to reach you. Did you check your cell? She said she got voice mail. Anyway, your book copies did arrive this morning. She dropped this off." Anna pulled a hardback book from under her clipboard. "Ta-da!"
"My book!" Kate stared at the cover, where the title, Finding Mr. Right-for-You, floated above a cartoon couple. The man was on his knee, proposing. Below them, a colorful box housed the bold letters of Kate's name. She ran her fingers over the glossy book jacket, feeling the raised bumps of the letters, savoring the moment.
"Pam wants a quick photo shoot before the guests arrive. You holding the book, that kind of thing. You should probably call her."
Kate jotted the note. While it was on her mind, she reached down and turned on her cell.
"Ready for more great news?" Anna asked. Her blue eyes glittered like diamonds. The news had to be good.
"The New York Times is sending a reporter and a photographer. They want to do a feature story on your wedding and your book."
Fresh air caught and held in Kate's lungs. Rosewood Press was probably turning cartwheels. "That's fabulous. They'll want an interview." She scanned her schedule, looking for an open slot. After the reception? She hated to do it, but Bryan would understand. The New York Times. It would give Kate's initial sales the boost it needed. Maybe enough to make the bestseller list.
"Here's the number." Anna handed her a yellow Post-It. "That tabloid guy has been hanging around all morning, trying to figure out who the groom is. I told him he'd find out in six hours like everyone else. The rest of the media is scheduled to arrive an hour before the wedding, and Pam's having an area set up over there for them." Anna gestured behind the rows of chairs to a square blocked off with white ribbon.
"Good. I want them to be as inconspicuous as possible. This is my wedding, and a girl only gets married once, after all."
"One would hope." Anna said. "Is there anything else I can do?"
Kate gave her a sideways hug, as close to an embrace as she'd ever given her assistant, her fingers pressing into Anna's fleshy shoulder. "You're a godsend. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Oh! I know what I forgot to tell you. The gazebo. It should have been here by now. I tried to call Lucas, but I got the machine, and I don't have his cell number."
"His shop's closed today, and he doesn't have a cell." The man didn't wear a watch, much less carry a phone. She should've known better than to put something this crucial in his hands. Kate checked her watch. "I'll run over and check on it."
* * *
The drive to town was quick and effortless, but Kate's mind swam with a hundred details. She jotted reminders on her clipboard when she stopped for pedestrians, occasionally admiring the cover of her book.
She couldn't believe what a wonderful day it was. She had a book coming out, she was about to walk down the aisle, and the weather couldn't be more perfect. Thank you, God, for the beautiful day, for the man I'm about to marry, for the book deal. Eveything was in perfect order.
She called Pam for a quick recap about the New York Times reporter, and by the time she hung up, she was pulling into a parallel slot on Main Street, in front of Lucas's storefront.
The sign above the picture window read "Cottage House Furniture." On the second floor of the Shaker building, the wooden shingle for her own business dangled from a metal pole: "Kate Lawrence, Marriage Counseling Services." She needed to remind Lucas to remove it; otherwise he'd leave it hanging for another year or until someone else rented the space.
Kate exited her car and slid her key into the rusty lock of the shop's door. Once inside, she passed the stairs leading to her office and walked through the darkened maze of furniture to the back, where she hoped to find Lucas. She bumped an end table with her shin. Ow! That would leave a mark.
The high-pitched buzz of a power tool pierced the darkness, a good sign. "Lucas?" She rapped loudly on the metal door with her knuckles. The noise stopped.
She opened the door. Lucas Wright looked up from his spot on the cement floor at the base of the gazebo, his too-long hair hanging over one eye. He looked her over, then turned back to the spindle and ran his thick hand over it as if testing the curves.
"Aren't you supposed to be at the beach?" he asked.
Kate crossed her arms. "I could ask you the same thing."
He stood, agile for his size, and backed away from the gazebo. Sawdust from the floor clung to his faded jeans and black T-shirt. "I was just finishing."
"You were supposed to be there an hour ago. The gazebo needs to be put in place before the sound system, and the florist has to decorate it, and there are people waiting to do their jobs."
He faced her, looking into her in that way of his that made her feel like he could see clean through her. "Today's the big day, huh?" Putting his tool on his workhorse, he dusted off his hands, moving in slow motion as though he'd decided tonight wouldn't arrive until next week.
Kate checked her watch. "Do you think you can get this down to the beach sometime today?"
Walking around the piece, he studied it, hands on his hips, head cocked. "You like it?"
For the first time since the week before, Kate looked at the gazebo—the white lattice top, the hand-carved spindles, the gentle arch of the entry. At the top of the arch, a piece of wood curved gracefully, etched with clusters of daisies. The gazebo's simple lines were characteristic of Lucas's work, but she'd never known him to use such exquisite detail. The piece had an elegance that surpassed her expectations. He did beautiful work; she'd give him that.
"I do. I love the etching." She sighed. Just when he irritated the snot out of her, he did something like this, caught her off guard. She always felt like she was tripping down the stairs when she was with him.
Focus! "It needs to find its way to the beach. Pronto."
"Yes ma'am." His salute was unhurried.
Before she could offer a retort, her cell phone pealed and buzzed simultaneously, and she pulled it from her capri pocket.
"Bryan." Turning away from Lucas and toward the door, she eyed a crude desk with a metal folding chair that bore countless rusty scratches. "Good morning." A smile crept into her voice. It was their wedding day. The day they'd planned for nearly two years. "Did you sleep well?" She hadn't. She'd rumpled the sheets until nearly two o'clock, but that was to be expected.
The silence on the other end, however, was not. "Bryan?" Had she lost the signal?
"Um, Kate, did you get my message?"
There'd been a blinking red light this morning. She'd assumed it was Pam's voice mail and hadn't checked. Suddenly, she wished she had.
"No. What's wrong?"
"Are you sitting down?"
"No, I'm not sitting down. Just tell me." An ugly dread snaked down her spine and settled there, coiled and waiting.
"I'm on my way back to Boston," he said. "I left a message this morning. You must've had your phone off."
Kate's stomach stirred. She stared at the wall in front of her—a pegboard with a zillion holes, metal prongs poking from it, tools and cords everywhere. "What happened?" Some emergency, maybe?
What emergency could trump our wedding?
"I can't marry you, Kate."
The words dropped, each one crumbling under its own weight. The stirring in her stomach intensified. "That's not funny, Bryan." It was a terrible joke. He'd never been good with jokes. His punch lines left you leaning forward, waiting for the rest.
"I'm in love with someone else."
Pain. A huge wooden spoon, tossing the contents of her stomach. Her legs wobbled, trembling on the wedge heels of her sandals, and she clutched the cold metal of the folding chair. "What?" Was that her voice, weak and thready? Someone had vacuumed all the moisture from her mouth, sucked the air from her lungs.
"I'm so sorry," Bryan was saying. "I know this is awful. You don't deserve this, but I can't marry you. It happened slowly, and I didn't realize what was going on until recently. I tried to put it out of my mind, but I just can't. And I can't marry you knowing how I feel. I'm so sorry, Kate."
"What?" It was the only word her mind could form at the moment.
"I know there's no excuse. I should have told you before now, but I thought it would go away. I thought I was just having cold feet or something, but it's more than that."
"We've been together for two years, Bryan."
It was a stupid thing to say, but it was all she could think of. Memories played across the screen of her mind in fast-forward. The day they'd met in line at Starbucks in downtown Boston when Kate had gone there for a conference. Their first date at the Colonial Theatre. The long-distance courting and weekend visits. The e-mails, the phone calls, the engagement, the book. It all whizzed by, coming to a screeching halt here, at this moment. Here, in Lucas's dusty workshop. Here, in front of the special gazebo they were to be married in.
"I've already called my family and told them. I know there's a lot to do, and I'll help any way you want me to. And then there's your book ... I'm so sorry."
Sorry. You're sorry? She pictured the precise rows of white chairs, the tent being erected as they spoke, the celebrity preacher, the photographers.
The New York Times.
She closed her burning eyes. Everything would have to be cancelled.
At that thought, humiliation arrived on the scene, sinking in past the pain of betrayal. The weight of it pushed at her shoulders, and she grabbed the hair at her nape. Think, Kate! This is no time to lose it.
"Stop, Bryan. Just stop and think about what you're doing. Maybe you're letting your issues with your parents' divorce affect your decisions. This kind of fear is perfectly natural before a wedding, and maybe—"
"No, it's not that—"
"How do you know?" She forced reason into her tone. Used her soothing voice—the one she used when things got heated between one of her couples. "We love each other. We're perfect for each other. You've said it a hundred times."
"There's something missing, Kate."
She wobbled again and steadied herself with a hand on the chair. "Something missing"? What was that supposed to mean?
As her mind grappled with that seemingly unanswerable question, she felt a hand at her back, leading her into the chair. She was sitting, her head as fuzzy as a cotton-candy machine, her emerald-cut engagement ring blurring before her eyes.
"What do you mean there's something missing? The only thing missing is the groom. For our wedding that starts in five hours. Five hours, Bryan." Now she felt the hysteria building and took a full breath, nearly choking on the way the oxygen stretched her lungs.
"I'll help in any way I can."
"You can help by showing up for our wedding!"
Her mind ran through the list of people she'd have to call. Her dad, the guests, her publisher. She thought of the money Rosewood Press had spent on this elaborate beach wedding. They'd flown in friends and family from all over the country, paid for the photographer, flowers, caterer, the wedding attire. Kate had only wanted a simple wedding, but with the release of the book, the marketing department had other ideas. "An elegant wedding and a surprise groom just as the book releases. We can ask Reverend James McFadden to perform the ceremony! Think of the publicity, Kate!"
A knot started in her throat and burned its way to her heart.
"I'll always care about you," Bryan said.
The words fell, as empty as a discarded soda bottle on a deserted beach.
The adrenaline coursing through her veins drained suddenly, leaving her once again weak and shaky. She couldn't talk to him anymore. She wasn't going to break down on the phone, wasn't going to beg him to come back. It wouldn't accomplish a thing anyway. She'd heard this tone of Bryan's voice before. He was a man who knew what he wanted. And what he didn't want.
And he didn't want Kate. She suddenly knew that fact as surely as she knew tomorrow would be more impossible to face than today.
She cleared her throat. "I have to go."
"Kate, tell me what I can do. My family will pitch in too. I want to help fix things."
She wanted to tell him there was no fixing this. There was no fixing her heart or the impending collision of her life and her career. Instead, numb, she closed the phone, staring straight ahead at the holes on the pegboard until they blended together in a blurry haze.
He was leaving her. The man she loved was walking away. This wasn't supposed to be happening. Not to her. She'd been so careful, and for what? A hollow spot opened up in her stomach, wide and gaping.
Instead of the headlines reading "Marriage Expert Finds Her Mr. Right," they would read "Marriage Expert Jilted at the Altar."
Kate had never considered herself prideful, but the thought of facing the next twenty-four hours made cyanide seem reasonable. How can this be happening, God? To me, of all people? She'd written a book on the subject of finding the right mate and had managed to find the wrong one instead. By tomorrow the whole world would know.
Chapter TwoLucas watched Kate snap her phone shut. Maybe he should've left when he heard the gravity in her voice, but he couldn't. Like a pedestrian gawking at a car accident, he'd watched Kate receive the news. When he realized what Bryan was saying, he'd wanted to hunt the man down and pummel him until he felt the same pain as Kate. Instead he'd ushered Kate to the chair, wishing he could pull her into his arms and tell her it was going to be okay.
But that was the last thing she wanted.
Now she faced the wall, unmoving. Her glossy black hair hung straight, almost to her wilted shoulders. He'd never seen her so motionless. She was always on the go, steady as a clock; he'd been mesmerized by that the first time they'd met. Now, her stillness seemed unnatural.
He took a step toward her. "Kate?"
She must have forgotten about him, because she jumped slightly, then ran her hand across her face before turning partway. Her hair, always tucked behind her ears, had come loose. Her eyes only made it to his knees.
Excerpted from The Convenient Groom by Denise Hunter Copyright © 2008 by Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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