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"Stacy really wants the circus theme," Patricia Grange said, a note of appeal in her voice. It was a tone Karen Petersham knew wellthe desperate cry of a woman who has spoiled her baby girl for so long she doesn't know how to stop. As one of the top wedding planners in Philadelphia, Karen got her share of spoiled princesses and their bizarre wedding requests, but this was right up there.
"A circus themed wedding is certainly unusual," Karen said smoothly. "You don't get a lot of them."
"It's because of Cirque du Soleil," Patricia explained, throwing her hands out in a gesture of helplessness.
"Cirque du Soleil?" What on earth could a bunch of acrobatically theatrical circus performers have to do with a wedding?
The mother of the bride nodded. "Hudson took Stacy to see the touring production of Kooza for their first date. They think it would be romantic to recreate the circus theme for their wedding."
"Well, I guess we can be happy he didn't take her ice fishing for their first date."
The woman smiled weakly. "I suppose so." She straightened the perfectly straight hem on her Gucci skirt. "Cirque is about both clowning and acrobatics, of course."
"Two excellent attributes of a successful marriage."
"Exactly." The woman smiled at her gratefully. "And Cirque did perform at the Academy Awards one time. I remember seeing it on television."
Only a Philadelphia society girl could equate her wedding with the Academy Awards. Already Karen suspected that this ceremony was going to be one of those nightmares. The mother of the bride had shown up for the appointment, but no bride. Always a bad sign. She was conscious of a wish to tell the woman to take her flying circus acrobats and find another wedding planner, but she didn't. As much as she despaired over some of the demands made of her and her company, If You Can Dream It, Karen also got the most juice out of the toughest assignments. Frankly, the challenges stopped her from succumbing to boredom.
Rich October sunshine streamed through the windows of the renovated brick warehouse she'd bought in Old Town to house her growing business, bringing out the rich caramel in the floors she'd had restored.
"Let me see what I can do. I'll put together a proposal for you and we can meet again, shall we say in two weeks? Perhaps with the bride this time."
When the mother left, Karen sat for a few minutes, typing her notes into her computer, then she got up and walked through the office.
"I'm going to see Chelsea," she said to her assistant, Dee, on the way out. The young blonde British girl who was both support staff and her assistant wedding planner nodded, unsurprised, since Karen took the short walk to her caterer and good friend's premises at least once a day. She trekked to Hammond & Co. to discuss jobs with Chelsea Hammond, her exclusive caterer, or simply to chat with the woman who'd become a close friend. And if she walked the two blocks briskly enough, that was as good as fifteen minutes on the treadmill.
Slipping on sunglasses and a light coat, she strode toward the storefront where Chelsea sold takeout gourmet food and coffee while she ran her growing catering business from the huge industrial kitchen in back. Upstairs was a small apartment that she used as her office.
Chelsea was placing a heaping bowl of quinoa salad into the display case when Karen walked in. She only knew it was quinoa because a sign said so. Unlike her friend, food was not her passion but her enemy and she tried to think about it as little as possible. She certainly wasn't one for cookbooks and those endless TV torture shows featuring gorgeous men preparing mouthwatering mealstwo things she most wanted and that were so bad for her, with her figure that was both top-heavy and bottom-heavy on a much too short frame.
The catererblessed by nature with a long, slim body that was neither top- nor bottom-heavy, but just rightsmiled her rich, slightly mischievous smile at Karen as she straightened from her task. "Perfect, you're just in time for coffee."
"Make mine with cream. And I want one of your four-thousand-calorie brownies to go with it."
Since Karen was on a perpetual diet, Chelsea raised her brows. "Bad day?"
"The bride wants a circus theme. Cirque du Soleil, no less."
Chelsea poured two cups of coffee, deftly popped several decadent treats onto a plate and called out to someone out of sight in the back kitchen, "I'm taking a break upstairs. Keep an eye on the front and call me if you need me."
"'Kay," came the reply.
They hiked up the stairs and Karen said, "I wonder if the wedding night will feature trapezes and human pyramids."
"Your cynicism is showing," Chelsea said, as though it were a slip hanging below her skirt hem.
Karen sighed. "I know. Easy for you, with a big rock sparkling on your finger and the world's cutest guy in love with you, but I'm a bitter divorcee. The wedding planner who doesn't believe in marriage."
"Sure you do," Chelsea soothed. "You simply haven't found the right man."
"I'm thirty-five years old. And the brides get younger every year." She gazed longingly at a brownie. "And thinner. I should give up and let myself get fat. It's not like anyone ever sees me naked. If I'm not getting sex, at least I should take pleasure in food."
"You are not fat, what you are is voluptuous." The woman saw where Karen's eyes were straying and said, "I know you. If you eat that brownie you'll only torture yourself." Her brown eyes twinkled. "But that lemon dream bar is low-cal."
"You're too good to me," she sighed, almost snatching the yellow confection off the plate.
"Are you kidding me? I wouldn't have this great location or half the business I have if it wasn't for you. I am so happy you took a chance on me."
It was true, Karen mused as she bit into a lemon-flavored slice of paradise. When they'd first met, Chelsea Hammond had just returned from cooking school in Paris and was trying to launch her own catering business. When Karen had tasted the woman's food and chatted with her for a few minutes she'd experienced the gut deep excitement of knowing she'd found the missing piece of her wedding planning business. She'd pretty much signed up Chelsea on the spot to be her exclusive caterer. It meant that no other wedding planner could use the services of Hammond & Co., though she was free to cater any other events on her own. In return, Chelsea got all of If You Can Dream It's catering, and there was a lot of that.
Chelsea opened a computer file on her desktop computer. "When is this wedding circus scheduled?"
"Depends on Cirque du Soleil's schedule."
The woman glanced up, her dark brown hair swinging. "Wow."
"Yeah. Apparently somebody on the groom's side knows somebody who might be able to get them to perform at the wedding." She shook her head at the enormity of the task ahead of her. "We will need a huge space, lots of height. The bride thinks she might want an honest-to-God circus tent."
"I'll play with some ideas for food." Chelsea twisted her mouth to one side. "Not that circus exactly screams matching food. I'll have to work on decoration and presentation." She typed a few more words. "Laurel's the one who'll be thrilled."
Laurel Matthews was a cake maker and decorator of such extraordinary talent that her cakes were true works of art and architecture and, equally amazing, they tasted delicious. An If You Can Dream It wedding was notable for meticulous planning, delicious food, and a cake that always surprised and delighted. "You're right. She'll love the challenge. I can't even imagine what she'll dream up," Karen said.
"Which is what's so great about her cakes."
"I've got another prospect coming this morning she's looking for a May or June wedding next year, is that a problem for you?"
Chelsea glanced up, looking slightly puzzled. "No, why would it be?"
Karen had been trying delicately to find out when this woman who was engaged to the man of her dreams was actually getting married. So far, subtle hadn't worked. "I'm wondering when you and David are getting married. Won't you need some time off?"
Chelsea waved a hand, her engagement ring catching the light and sending out a spray of fireworks. "Don't worry. We'll get around to it. We're just both so busy right now."
"That man needs to stop playing hard to get," she snapped.
Karen still hadn't entirely forgiven David Wolfe for making a deal with Chelsea to pose as his fake fiancée in order for him to snag a promotion at work. Of course he'd fallen in love with Chelsea along the way. Who wouldn't? She was gorgeous, a gourmet cook and one of the sweetest women Karen had ever met. So, had he snapped up this amazing woman when she'd obviously loved him? No, of course not. Being a man, he had no idea when the greatest woman in Philadelphia was right under his nose. Instead, he'd almost lost her.
Karen would never forget the heartbroken woman who had taken refuge in this very space, living in the small suite she now used as her office while she struggled to get her business going and forget David, the man who had broken her heart.
Fortunately, he'd come to his senses just in time and now they were engaged for real, living in his amazing town house in Rittenhouse Square. But Karen would be a lot happier when the engagement ended in marriage.
What was stopping David? Did he really want to lose this woman again?
"He's fine. Really. We're both fine."
She didn't believe it for a minute, but she also knew that Chelsea wasn't one to unburden herself easily. She'd talk to Karen when she was ready.
Deciding she had too much on her plate with circus acts and new business coming in every day to worry about why her best friend wasn't in a hurry to marry the man she was engaged to, she reluctantly drained her coffee cup.
When she returned to her office, Karen felt calmer. The taste of lemon clung to her lips and the idea of a circus for a wedding seemed more ludicrous than annoying.
"The Swensons asked to move their appointment back half an hour," her assistant said. "And two new messages came in. I put them on your desk with your mail."
She stepped into her office. The Hepplewhite desk had nothing on it but her laptop, the big leather-bound day planner she still used in spite of technology, the small stack of mail and the phone messages.
She had ten minutes until her next appointment, a new client, Sophie Vanderhooven, and while she waited she flipped open the newest bridal magazine. It was important to keep up with the latest trends, though after ten years in the business she found trends fairly predictable. Now, for instance, with so much uncertainty in the world, weddings were turning strongly traditional. When the economy boomed and wars were somewhere else, then more couples tended to exchange vows on the beach wearing love beads or shouted their I Do's from hang gliders.
She was skimming an article about nonallergenic bouquets when her assistant beeped her intercom. "Ms. Vanderhooven and her fiancé are here," she said.
"Thanks. I'll be right out."
A quick peek in the mirror she kept in her top drawer confirmed that her mouth was now free of tell-tale lemon dream bar crumbs, her red hair was confined into a smooth bun, her mascara unsmudged. A quick swipe of lip gloss and she stepped back into the towering heels she wore to raise her closer to her dream height of five foot ten from her God-given, stingy five-two.
Her practiced smile on her face, she stepped out to greet her latest clients. She reached the reception area and stalled, her hand already half extended, her mouth open to speak. But nothing came out.
Normally, she gave her initial attention to the bride since she was almost always the true client, while the groom was only peripherally involved. But the man who rose from the plush waiting room seats was not one she could ignore.
He was still commanding, still gorgeous in that careless way of a man who's so used to female attention he barely notices it. Keenly intelligent gray eyes held her gaze, a twinkle of amusement lurking in their depths. His hair was still dark, though a few threads of silver glittered at his temples. Neither of them spoke, then a female voice broke into her trance.
Her hand was taken in a cool clasp. "Hello. I'm Sophie Vanderhooven, I'm so pleased to meet you. And this is Dexter Crane."
Automatically, Karen pumped her hand up and down, forced her mouth back into some semblance of normality. "Nice to meet you."
She inclined her head at the man still staring at her. "Mr. Crane." There was a slight pause as the three of them stood there before she pulled herself together. "Um, won't you come into my office?"
She turned and began walking.
She felt his eyes on her all the way, and bitterly did she regret every calorie she'd so foolishly imbibed in the five years since she'd last laid eyes on Dexter Crane. A woman had her pride. The last thing she wanted was to look fat in front of her soon-to-be-married ex-husband.
Especially from behind.
"When are you and Mr. Crane planning to be married?" she asked in her most professional tone. She'd taken her place behind her desk and motioned for the happy couple to occupy the two pretty chintz chairs opposite.
A well-bred laugh answered her. A finishing school hah-hah, perfectly-modulated and quiet. "I'm not marrying Dexter. He's the best man, but my fiancé is out of the country and he asked Dex to come along with me so I don't get carried away."
Her gaze rose and connected with Dexter's. Yep, that was definitely a glimmer of amusement. Bastard. He was enjoying this.
"I see." In a much lower voice she muttered, "Lucky escape for you."
"I said, 'It's a lucky thing you've come early in the season.' Things really book up. Well, what do you have in mind, Ms. Vanderhooven?"