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The present . . .
The long, pearl-studded train of the creamy candlelight-satin wedding gown cascaded in graceful folds behind the bride as she glided to a halt in front of the altar. She smiled demurely at the groom through a gossamer cloud of veil. The organ music trailed off. A respectful hush fell. The minister cleared his throat.
"Well, that's it for me," Hannah murmured to her assistant as they retreated to the portico in front of the church. "I'm out of here. You can handle the receiving line. The limo is ready. Keep an eye on the four-year-old nephew. He'll probably make another grab for the bride's train when she walks back down the aisle. See you at the reception."
"It's so perfect." Carla Groves seized a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. She peeked back into the church. "The flowers, the candles. Everything. The bride looks as if she just stepped out of a fantasy."
"I don't know how to tell you this, Carla, but you aren't going to last long in this business if you weep every time you send a bride up the aisle."
"But she's so beautiful. Practically glowing."
"Uh-huh." Hannah snapped the lock on her briefcase. "Looks even better this time than she did the last time. Probably because her budget was much larger. She did very well in the divorce settlement, you know. Had a great lawyer."
Carla rolled her eyes. "You're such a cynic, Hannah."
"No, I'm not. I agree with you. Jennifer Ballinger does make a lovely bride. And a very profitable one for Weddings by Harte. This is her second marriage with us, and I have every expectation that in a couple of years she'll come back to this firm for her third. Nothing like a repeat customer, I always say."
At five-thirty that evening, Hannah stepped out of the elevator into a corridor decorated in shades of tasteful beige and walked down the hall toward the door of her apartment. Her footsteps were hushed by the thick, pale carpeting, but the door of the suite next to hers opened before she reached it.
Winston rushed out to greet her with as much enthusiasm as a properly bred Schnauzer considered appropriate to exhibit upon such occasions. As always, the sight of the small, elegant, salt-and-pepper dog hurrying toward her lowered Hannah's stress level by several degrees.
She smiled as she crouched to scratch Winston behind the ears. He gave a discreetly muffled whine, quivered with pleasure, and licked her hand.
"Hello, pal. Sorry I'm late. Been a long day."
Winston looked up at her through a fringe of long, silvery lashes, understanding in his intelligent eyes.
Mrs. Blankenship struck her head around the edge of the door. "Oh, there you are, dear. Winston was starting to get a trifle anxious. How did the wedding go?"
"Nothing out of the ordinary. The usual number of snafus at the reception. The caterer turned up with a cheese tart instead of the asparagus canapes that the bride had selected. The photographer helped himself to a couple of glasses of champagne and started to flirt with the bartender. The flower girl came very close to getting into a food fight with the four-year-old nephew."
"Just the usual, then." Mrs. Blankenship nodded wisely. She always loved to hear about the weddings. "But I'm sure you nipped all the potential disasters in the bud behind the scenes."
"That's what I get paid to do." Hannah leaned down to pat Winston, who bounced around her high heels. "I think the bride was satisfied. As far as she was concerned, everything went off as if the whole thing had been staged by a computer."
Mrs. Blankenship pursed her lips. "I don't think that's an appropriate image, dear. The thought of a computer-generated wedding is really quite dreadful. It sounds so cold. Weddings are supposed to evoke all sorts of wonderful emotions, after all."
"Trust me, Mrs. Blankenship, behind the scenes, a well-managed wedding has a lot in common with a launch of the space shuttle."
"You know, dear, I hate to mention this, but you've become increasingly cynical ever since you ended your engagement last year. It's so sad to see a young, healthy, vibrant woman like you turn jaded. Maybe you took on too much when you signed up for all those evening classes at the college."
"You've been working much too hard for the past year. Perhaps you need a vacation. Go someplace where you can relax and regain your interest in your business and your social life."
"I have no social life to revive, Mrs. Blankenship. And as for my career, nothing will ever make me starry-eyed about my business. The only weddings that I actually enjoy doing are those in which I know for a fact that the couple met through my sister's agency. At least I can feel reasonably confident that those marriages have a good chance of lasting."
"Yes, your sister does have a knack for matchmaking, doesn't she?" Mrs. Blankenship got a dreamy expression in her eyes. "She obviously has a wonderful sense of intuition when it comes to that sort of thing."
"I hate to disillusion you, Mrs. Blankenship, but Lillian uses a computer, not her intuition." Hannah dug her keys out of her massive shoulder bag. "Does Winston need a walk right away?"
"No, dear, we just got back from our walkies," Mrs. Blankenship said.
"Great." Hannah went to her own door and unlocked it, Winston trotting eagerly at her heels. "Thanks again, Mrs. Blankenship."
"Anytime, dear." Mrs. Blankenship paused. "You know, you really should consider taking some time off. Your busy season is finished. You could slip away for a while."
"Funny you should mention that, Mrs. Blankenship. I was just thinking the same thing."
Mrs. Blankenship beamed. "I'm so glad to hear that. You really haven't been quite the same since your engagement ended."
"Several people have mentioned that." Hannah opened her door. "One theory is that I have been possessed by an alien entity."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Never mind. Good night, Mrs. Blankenship."
"Good night, dear."
Hannah stepped into the small hallway, waited until Winston came inside, and then swiftly shut the door. She flipped on the lights.
"Give me a minute to change, Winston. Then I'll find us both something to eat."
In the bedroom she stripped off the jacket and skirt of her blue business suit, then pulled on a pair of black leggings and a cozy cowl-necked tunic and slipped into a pair of ballet-style flats. Pausing for a moment in front of the mirror, she brushed her hair behind her ears and anchored it with a narrow band.
When she was ready, she padded back down the hall into the kitchen and dug one of the expensive, specially formulated dog bones out of a box for Winston. The Schnauzer took it very politely from her fingers.
Winston needed no further urging. He set to work on the bone vigorously.
Hannah opened the refrigerator and meditated on the sparse contents for a moment. After a while she removed a hunk of sheep's-milk feta cheese and a nearly empty bottle of Chardonnay.
She arranged her small haul on a tray and carried it into the second bedroom, where she maintained a home office. Winston followed, the remains of his bone wedged firmly between his jaws. Sinking down onto the high-backed chair, Hannah propped her feet on the corner of the desk and munched a cracker with some of the cheese on it.
Winston took up his customary position on the floor beside the desk chair. Muted crunching sounds ensued."Brace yourself, Winston." Hannah reached for the phone. "I'm going to check my messages. Who knows what excitement awaits us?"
The automated answering service surrendered three offerings. The first was from a florist, reporting that the orchids Hannah had ordered for the Cooke-Anderson wedding were going to cost more than expected."I told the client that they would be expensive."
The second message was from her brother, Nick, letting her know that he had just mailed the manuscript of the most recent addition to his successful suspense series to the editor. "I'm taking Carson to Disneyland, and then we're going on down to Phoenix to see Sullivan and Rachel. Probably be gone for most of the month. You know how to reach me if you need me."
"It's about time he married again," Hannah said to Winston. "Amelia has been gone for three years now. He and little Carson have been alone long enough."
Winston jiggled his brows.
"Yes, I know. I'm a fine one to talk."
She punched the key for the last message . . . and nearly fell off her chair when she heard Rafe Madison's unmistakable, bottom-of-the-sea voice. Her heels came down off the desk with a small thud. She sucked in a half-strangled breath and sat forward abruptly. The Chardonnay sloshed wildly in the glass. Several drops went over the rim and hit Winston between his ears.
He looked up from his bone with a puzzled expression.
"Sorry, Winston." She grabbed a napkin and blotted the wine off the top of his head. "I was a little stunned there for a second, but I don't think I'm going to faint or anything."
She tossed the napkin into the wastebasket, inhaled slowly, and took a steadying swallow of wine.
She had not heard his voice in eight years, and although this time around it was only a recording, it had the same impact on her tonight as it had the last time. Small flashes of electrical energy snapped through her nerve endings. Her stomach seemed to float in midair.
"This is Rafe Madison . . ."
The last conversation she'd had with him flitted through her mind. Good luck with that five-year plan of yours. I hope things work out the way you want.
She wondered if he'd ever gotten his act together.
". . . Got the message you sent through your lawyer. The answer is no. Looks like we've got a few things to talk about, and I don't plan to do it through our attorneys. See you in Eclipse Bay."
"No?" The old memories went up in smoke and the present came crashing back. She stabbed the replay key.". . . The answer is no. . . . See you in Eclipse Bay."
She had not misunderstood. His answer to her offer was loud and clear.
"I think I've got a problem, Winston."
She dropped the bombshell on her sister the following morning.
"What do you mean, he refuses to sell?" Lillian demanded on the other end of the line. "That house belonged to our great-aunt, not his. He can't refuse to sell."
Hannah listened to the muffled sounds of a printer in the background. Lillian was hard at work. She ran her matchmaking firm, Private Arrangements, out of an office in a high-rise located only a few blocks away from the one in which Hannah and Winston lived.
"You were there when Isabel's will was read," Hannah reminded her wearily. "She left the house equally to Rafe and me. The lawyer says he can do whatever he wants to do with his half."
"Hmm. Maybe you didn't offer him enough money."
"The negotiations didn't even get that far. I just sent a message to him through the lawyer telling him that I would be willing to buy out his half of the house. I expected him to come back with a price."
"What on earth do you suppose he plans to do with half of Dreamscape?" Lillian mused.
"Who knows?" Hannah frowned at the array of wedding photos that decorated her office wall. "But I have plans for Dreamscape, and I'm certainly not going to let him stand in my way."
"You're going to meet with him in Eclipse Bay, aren't you?"
"Doesn't look like I've got much choice. I want Dreamscape. Somehow I've got to talk him out of his share of the place."
"We haven't heard much about Rafe in recent years. Just that he got married and divorced."
Hannah thought about her midnight conversation with Rafe. The men in my family aren't much good when it comes to marriage. . . . Figure the odds are against me getting lucky . . .
"Divorce is a Madison family tradition," she said quietly.
"Unfortunately, it's a very common tradition for a lot of families these days." Lillian made a tut-tut sound. "I don't know why so many people refuse to see the obvious. Marriage is a partnership. It should be entered into the same way one would go into any serious business arrangement. All the factors should be examined from every angle before a commitment is made."
"There's a staggering amount of scientific evidence that suggests that couples who are properly matched using modern psychological tests and personality inventories are far more likely to succeed at marriage than those who let their emotions-"
"Enough, Lillian. I've heard your professional pitch before, remember?"
"Sorry. You know me. I get a little carried away sometimes." Lillian hesitated. "About Rafe Madison-"
"What about him?"
"Think he's changed?"
"How should I know?" Hannah rose, phone in hand, and went to the window. "Wonder if he achieved his big career objective?"
"Didn't know he had one."
"Oh, he had one, all right." Hannah studied the view of the bridge-studded Willamette River. "His great ambition was to stay out of jail."
"Given the direction in which everyone seemed to think he was headed eight years ago, that would have been a major accomplishment."
"I'm sure we would have heard if he had gone to prison." Hannah tightened her grip on the phone. "That kind of news would have been hot gossip in Eclipse Bay."
"Ah, but as far as we know, he hasn't been back to Eclipse Bay very often since Kaitlin Sadler died. According to Mom and Dad, he makes a couple of short weekend visits to see his grandfather every few months and that's it. How would anyone know if he'd done time?"
"I think he was too smart to end up in prison," Hannah said.
"Smart does not always equate with common sense. We're both in the marriage business. We see smart people do dumb things every day."
Lillian paused. "You're still serious about your plans for Dreamscape?"
"I was afraid of that. My advice is don't let Rafe know you've got your heart set on turning Dreamscape into an inn."
Lillian made an exasperated sound. "Use your head. If he figures out just how badly you want the place, he'll hold out for a whopping price for his half."
"I'll be careful how much I say. I'm a Harte, remember? I can be cool."
"Do that," Lillian said dryly. "You know, something tells me that it's a good thing that Mom and Dad went on that monthlong cruise. If they knew that you were getting ready to go toe-to-toe with Rafe Madison over Dreamscape, they'd descend on Eclipse Bay like avenging angels."
"Speaking of family interference, I'm counting on you to keep quiet about my decision to go to Eclipse Bay for a while. I want some time to work things out with Rafe. That won't be possible if I'm inundated with helpful Hartes."
"I'll keep quiet," Lillian sighed. "I still can't imagine what Aunt Isabel was thinking. Ever since Rafe used you as his alibi for the night Kaitlin Sadler died, she was obsessed with the notion that the two of you were the Romeo and Juliet of the Harte-Madison feud."
"Rafe didn't use me as his alibi," Hannah said. "I was his alibi."
"There's a difference?"
"Oh, yes," Hannah said. "There's a difference."