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Kelsey Rhodes scanned her friend's living room, her focus drawn to the lovely Christmas tree, its clear miniature lights radiated the same glow in Lexie's eyes. On the mantel a row of white candles flickered in the dusky light. Romantic, for sure. Kelsey's chest expanded, anticipating her friend's wedding ceremony in the cozy setting.
The parents of the bride and groom buzzed with their own excitement, and her chest constricted, seeing Lexie's son, Cooper, dressed in a dark suit, sitting near the window. He looked so cute. When he'd been released from the hospital a few weeks ago, allowing him to be home for Christmas and the January wedding, Kelsey had been relieved for Lexie. Her friend's plight aroused thoughts of her own daughter's illness, in remission for nearly a year. She prayed that Cooper's struggle with leukemia would take the same turn as Lucy's.
The succulent aroma of roast pork drifted into the room. But as delicious the scent was, Kelsey's stomach knotted. The idea of meeting Ross Salburg, Ethan's best man, had set her on edge, and nothing seemed to knock it out of her mind. If he recognized her name or who she was, she would be uncomfortable. Maybe she hadn't tried hard enough to get Ross into the Mothers of Special Kids organization. She'd tried to explain that the group was only for mothers, but he didn't care. Ethan mentioned that Ross had been disappointed. Facing him for the first time today put a damper on the celebration for her.
The doorbell rang, and Kelsey's pulse soared. She worked a pleasant expression onto her face, knowing the bell offered three optionsthe groom, the pastor or Ross.
Swallowing her anxiety, she pinned her gaze to the door as Lexie opened it. Nippy air swished into the room along with a man she'd never seen before. His good looks stole her breath. She had no doubt about the stranger's identity, and her stomach churned, facing their introduction.
Lexie steered him around the room, introducing him to the two sets of parents first. Ross leaned over to give Cooper a warm greeting, then faced her. She managed a smile.
"Kelsey, this is our best man, Ross." Lexie grinned. "And this is my matron of honor, Kelsey Rhodes."
Lexie's knowing look set Kelsey on edge. He'd already been told who she was.
Ross extended his hand, an unreadable expression on his face, but Kelsey sat unmoving, captured by his brown eyes, like bittersweet chocolate, that seemed to penetrate her soul. Heat rolled up her chest until she lowered her gaze to his hand. "Nice to meet you, Ross."
"Same here." He gestured toward the empty seat beside her on the sofa. "Do you mind?"
She forced her mind around her response. "Not at all." Her voice sounded pleasant. So far so good. But when he sank onto the cushion, the scent of a mountain woods wrapped around her, losing her in the image.
He looked around the room. "Ethan's late, I assume." He chuckled.
Ross's voice jerked her from the mountain stream to the glow of the Christmas lights. Her outofcontrol feelings confused her, as did Ross's avoidance of the topic she dreaded.
"Are you all hungry? Mom prepared a great dinner." Lexie's voice penetrated Kelsey's fog of preoccupation. "We'll get started once our two key people arrive."
Ross leaned forward. "Are you sure Ethan hasn't left you standing at the altar?"
Lexie grinned. "He'll be here. He loves pork roast."
Everyone chuckled while Kelsey sank deeper into the cushion. At the moment, she felt uneasy, captured beside the best man. Relief would come once the ceremony began.
Ross's arm brushed against hers, and her senses sharpened. She gazed around the room, hoping to cast off her giddy feeling. Using every ounce of concentration, she tuned into the mothers' conversation about life in Florida until she sensed Ross's eyes on her. Her stomach went into a downward spiral.
She turned to him, like a hound picking up the fox's scent. Here it comes, she deduced from the look on his face.
"Are you aware that I'm the Ross you all voted not to include in your support group?"
Kelsey considered telling a lie, but that wasn't her way, nor was it God's way. "I realized who you were when I heard your name." She sounded pathetic, and his pure innocent look made her feel even worse. "I'm sorry it turned out that way."
He didn't speak, though his eyes searched hers.
Feeling defensive, she wanted to explain. "I know I'm the moderator of the support group, but it went to a vote. It's always been a women's organizationyou know, Mothers of Special Kidsand I'd hoped you could find another resource out of the ones that I suggested."
Ross touched her arm. "Please. I wasn't trying to embarrass you. I knew it was a long shot." He lowered his eyes.
"Ethan gave me the other support groups' phone numbers, but"
"We'd never thought of men joining our group." Heat soared to her cheeks. "When we discussed it " She captured his gaze. "And we didall the women thought that men didn't really like talking about their feelings."
She wished she'd phrased it differently. "We thought men preferred to get things done, not talk about them."
"But when a man has a seriously ill child, there's little he can do."
The comment twisted in her chest. Lucy's operations for brain tumors tore into her memory. "I understand. I always felt so lonely before MOSK."
With a slight nod, he lowered his head. "It's hard to open up, but I think hearing about others struggling with similar problems would be helpful. I'm sure I would benefit from everyone's experiences."
"Ross, I'm really sorry." She dragged in a breath. "Now that I've heard what you have to say, I could try again in a while."
His gaze drifted to hers. "Thanks." He wove his fingers together and dropped his clenched hands into his lap. "I did call the other agencies, but either the meeting times didn't work for me or some of them had disbanded their groups." He lifted his chin. "I'm Peyton's only parent, and "
"I understand." Apologizing again offered little solace for the group's rejection. It made sense at the time, but now She evaded his eyes, and before she could rally, a noise from outside caught everyone's attention.
Cooper's excitement split the air. "It's Ethan."
The doorknob turned, and Ethan stepped into the foyer, snow drifting from his coat as he waved to everyone waiting. He slipped his arm around Lexie and gave her a fleeting kiss. The gesture triggered a flutter of envy in Kelsey. Years had passed since she'd been hugged by a man, let alone been kissed.
Ethan greeted each person, and when he stopped at the sofa, his eyes captured hers. "I see you've met Ross." A grin flickered on his windflushed cheeks.
Guilt snaked through her. "Yes, and we've talked."
He gave Ross a wink and shook his hand.
As he headed back to Lexie, the bell rang again. Ethan answered and welcomed their pastor inside, but when he turned toward the archway where Lexie had been standing, Ethan's eyes widened. "Where'd she go?"
His mother laughed. "She's getting ready for her wedding." She shook her finger at him as if he were still her little boy. "You can't see the bride in her finery before the ceremony. You know that."
Ethan's sheepish nod provided Kelsey with motivation to rise. "I'll go check on her." Escaping up the staircase, she reached the top, then slowed and drew in a deep breath. She needed to get her head untangled from Ross's presence. She'd suspected that her concern had focused on Ross's reaction to the MOSK group's veto, but that wasn't it. That would have been easier than the truth. She found him attractive in many ways. Besides his good looks, his vulnerability touched her and opened doors she thought had been closed.
Dealing with her emotions, she knocked on Lexie's bedroom door, and when Lexie told her to enter, Kelsey slipped inside and faltered. "Lexie, you look gorgeous." Kelsey swept to her side and wrapped Lexie in her arms. "Just beautiful." Though she'd seen her friend's wedding dress on the hanger, she hadn't seen it on Lexie. The white Aline satin gown featured a beaded bodice with a rounded neckline and cap sleeves. Lexie's dark wavy hair hung below her shoulders and contrasted with the sparkling crystal beads. Words failed Kelsey.
Lexie's mother wiped tears from her eyes. "I never thought I'd see this day. Never."
The comment jolted Kelsey's recollection. Lexie and her mother hadn't been close in many years, but mending seemed to have occurred. Memories of Kelsey's own lovely wedding came to mind, an amazing day that sadly ended years later when her husband had run off with her best friend. Lexie's marriage, she believed, was made in heaven.
Could she ever dream of such a day? The question winged in her thoughts for a fleeting second to be replaced with Ross's dark eyes. No. If she'd been foolish earlier, that speculation was the topper.
Lexie motioned to the table beneath the window. "Let's not forget the flowers."
Kelsey opened the box and drew out a bouquet of white orchids mingled with stephanotis and ivy. She handed it to Lexie. Corsages of orchids and ivy remained in the box, one for each mother and one for her. She pinned one on Mrs. Carlson, attached her own, then lifted the four boutonnieres from the florist's box. "I'll take these to the men." She looked at Lexie's mother. "Will you bring the other corsage?"
Mrs. Carlson nodded, and Kelsey slipped out the door with the stephanotis and sprigs of ivy, allowing mother and daughter a moment alone.
She descended the stairs and returned to the living room, where she attached the fathers' and Ethan's boutonnieres. When she faced Ross, her fingers trembled as she ran the long pin through his lapel.
"Thanks." He gave her a warm smile.
Mrs. Carlson returned with the corsage for Ethan's mother, and once she'd pinned it on her, she turned to Ethan. "It's time."
Ethan's anxious gaze flew to the staircase as Pastor Tom motioned Ross and Kelsey to join him in front of the fireplace. The candles blurred as tears welled in Kelsey's eyes. She bit the inside of her lip and turned to face the archway.
Lexie floated down the staircase, and Ethan's eyes never left her as he moved toward her. They walked forward handinhand, and the ceremony began.
Kelsey tuned in to the message, but the words took her back to her own marriage fourteen years earlier. The hurt and sadness of the bitter deceit, the loss of a friend and a husband swept over her. When she heard an amen, she forced her mind away from her dark thoughts.
Pastor Tom rested his palm on Lexie and Ethan's entwined hands. "By their promises to God and to all of you present, Alexandria and Ethan have bound themselves to one another as husband and wife." He looked from Ethan to Lexie and back, then grinned and shook his head. "What's keeping you? Kiss your bride."
Ethan drew Lexie into his arms, sealing their bond with a kiss, as chuckles and applause dotted the room, but Kelsey didn't laugh. Her chest ached with a longing. The love in Ethan's eyes and the glow in Lexie's attested to the true meaning of marriage, the kind of marriage God wanted for His children. Her own marriage had missed the mark by miles.
Envy flickered through her when Ross's palm touched her arm.
He tilted his head toward the dining room. "Want to?" Her heart rose to her throat as she tried to decipher his meaning.
He chuckled. "I'm hungry."
She caught on. "You want to help get the meal ready?"
She moved to his side, and he placed his palm on her back as they strode through the archway. The warmth of his hand rifled down Kelsey's spine. She pressed her lips together and gathered her wits. "Can you carve a pork roast?"
"Sure can. Let me show you what I can do."
Kelsey already knew what he could do to her emotions, and she wasn't ready for that. She hoped he was as deft cutting a roast.
Ross leaned back in his chair, barraged by multiple conversations surging around the diningroom table. But he wasn't really listening. He'd been able to cover his addled thoughts as he and Kelsey worked in the kitchen for a few short minutes before Mrs. Carlson followed them to take over her job as chef for the celebration dinner.
Meeting Kelsey in person tossed his original concept out the window. He'd pictured her as a noseintheair woman who ruled the Mothers of Special Kids with an iron hand, but he'd been very mistaken. He'd witnessed her uneasy apology attempts and realized that she'd tried to be fair by putting it to a vote.
What did bother him was the women's attitude about men. Stereotypical attitude, he could add. Yes, some men couldn't talk about their feelings. Some wanted to take care of things and not deal with emotions. But he'd learned that emotions were real whether he wanted to feel them or not, and when it came to his daughter, the pain of her struggle wrenched his heart. Why would mothers assume that fathers didn't hurt and didn't wrestle with decisions?
But today wasn't the day to deal with that issue. Maybe no day was right. He had questions for Kelsey, but they were more personal. How was her daughter's health now? Ethan had told him once that her daughter had a brain tumor, but what kind of tumor? Where was Kelsey's husband? Gone, yes. She'd mentioned being alone, but had he died or walked out on her? Had the tension of their daughter's illness caused the rift?
He sounded like a detective, and it unsettled him. Instead of brooding, Ross forced his mind to focus on the ensuing conversation about the upcoming Super Bowl. As he listened and tossed in a comment here and there, Kelsey's presence invaded his space. Her sweet fragrance filtered past before being covered by the yeasty dinner rolls and succulent pork roast.
"Excuse me, please."
Kelsey's voice swept past him, and he gazed at her.
"I need to check on Lucy." She pushed back her chair.
Concerned, Ross shifted and rose. "Is she okay?" He drew her chair aside so she could rise.
Kelsey stood, her body close to his. "She's fine. My sitter isn't the usual one I hire, so I'm always cautious." She slipped past him, and he watched her slide a door aside behind them and enter a room.
He stood a moment, wondering if he should stand until she returned or settle back in his chair again. The time stretched, and his concern rose. Not comfortable nosing into her business, yet not at ease ignoring her absence, he strode toward the door, but as he approached, it slid open and Kelsey stepped out. A questioning look spread across her face.
His mind slowed down, and he could only mumble. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."