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"NO WAY. I AM NOT interested." Megan Michiko O'Malley stared at her friend in horror.
"I mean it. If you had any kindness in your heart, you wouldn't do that to me."
It wasn't every day Meg saw an elegantly gowned bride cluck and flap her elbows. After one last loud hen imitation, Rey Martinson grinned. "Superstitious, are we?"
"No!" Meg busied herself with shoving the detritus left by the other bridesmaids into one big pile on the vanity table. They could sort out their own lipsticks and eye shadows. "It's only a little bouquet of flowers, not a magic wand to conjure Mr. Perfect."
"There is someone for you, Meg.And he'll probably appear out of thin air when you don't expect him."
Meg rolled her eyes. "It's been so long, I'll probably forget what to do with him."
"Call me if you can't remember." Rey laughed.
"But not tonight. It's my wedding night."
"So I guess we have to get you married first." Meg took a deep breath. She'd just grin and bear it like a good maid of honor. "And then the bouquet toss at the reception."
"Great! Stand in the front row, and I'll throw it straight to you. But watch out for my cousin, Inga. She played field hockey in boarding school."
"Jeez, Rey. Should I get a mouthguard so she doesn't knock my teeth loose?"
"You're much shorter than Inga, so I'll toss it low." Meg grimaced, picturing herself rolling around on the ballroom floor, pulling hair and clawing with her French-manicured acrylic nail tips. Pro wrestlers would get stomped into the parquet by a crowd of desperate single women at a bouquet toss.
"Promise me you'll try to catch the bouquet. Iwant you to have it." Rey caught her gaze in the mirror, her wide blue eyes pleading.
Meg sighed. It was a waste of flowers, since she had no prospective groom on her horizon. But Rey was in the sappy, syrupy stage of bridal bliss and Meg couldn't pour cold water over her. "I promise."
The wedding coordinator popped his head in the door. "Ten minutes, ladies."
Meg checked the back of her friend's gown to make sure the satin buttons were all fastened. "You look beautiful." It was true. Rey Martinson stood almost six feet tall in her strapless white sheath dress. She fit perfectly with what Meg called the three B's: blonde, blue-eyed and big-boobed. Or was that four B's?
Anyway, Meg did love her dearly enough to wedge herself into a bridesmaid dress that she'd only wear today before donating it to the local resale shop. Some short, big-hipped, flat-chested girl would have a great prom.
Unfortunately, Meg's only B's were brunette, big-bottomed and blotchy. She'd inherited her short stature from her Japanese mother and her green eyes from her Irish-American dad. Everything else was a peculiar mix. Her hair was dark brown with reddish highlights, currently pulled into a complicated French twist that matched the bride's. She moved from behind Rey to check her own dress and makeup. "My freckles are still showing," she complained.
"Don't worry. It's not like your mother's here to nag you about them." Rey, of course, had skin like fresh cream thanks to her Swedish heritage.
"She and my father were sorry they couldn't come today. Dad is in the middle of some complicated deal and Mom won't travel outside Japan on her own." Although her traditionally minded mother had taken to the Internet like an oshidori duck to water and regularly pecked at her via e-mail.
"Be sure to thank them for the beautiful red silk brocade kimono. The golden embroidery is exquisite."
"It's an Uchikake kimono and it's traditionally worn at the wedding reception." Her mother had bought two Uchikake kimonos, telling Meg that one was reserved for her. Never mind that Meg hadn't even gone on a date in four months thanks to her teaching schedule at the university. Maybe things would lighten up now that the semester was over.
Rey's mother Brigitte glided into the dressing room on a cloud of expensive French perfume, her beaded silk champagne suit swishing. "Darling, it's time."
Rey stared at her reflection in such a fog of happiness that Meg had to touch her elbow. A wistful ache settled over Meg at how happy her friend looked, preparing to marry the man she loved.
Brigitte kissed her daughter on each cheek and fussed with the spray of tiny white rosebuds in her hair. Meg handed Rey the bridal bouquet, fragrant with large white roses and one pink hibiscus, a tribute to her groom's Cuban roots. Meg grabbed her own smaller bouquet of roses, the pink flowers contrasting nicely against her pale green dress. The color reminded her of a piece of jade in her father's collection and the sash circling her waist looked vaguely like the obi that belted a kimono. Rey had a great eye for details, being a wonderful painter and sculptor. She considered keeping the dress, but where on earth would she wear a floor-length green satin dress?
"Thank you for being with me on my wedding day." Rey reached a satin-gloved hand out and squeezed Meg's hand.
Meg opened her eyes wide and blinked to keep the sudden tears from smearing her makeup. "I wouldn't be anywhere else."
"Come, darling, you don't want to keep Marco waiting," Brigitte urged. "Oh, Mother, Marco's used to waiting for me." She grinned at Meg, who rolled her eyes. Rey got so focused on her art that she often forgot what day it was.
Her mother smiled and kissed her cheek. "He loves you enough to wait for you forever."
Meg followed mother and daughter to the ballroom's threshold, where a string quartet played Vivaldi, waiting for the bride. As Meg stooped to arrange the folds of white satin, Brigitte's words echoed in her head. A man who'd wait forever? Ha.
RICK SOKOL was sick of waiting. Waiting for his delayed flight from Hong Kong, waiting on the tarmac for mechanical difficulties, and finally waiting to clear customs at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He assured the bored customs officer that he had nothing to declare and slung his battered carry-on over his shoulder.
Double-checking the terminal's huge clock, he set his grandfather's gold wristwatch to central daylight savings time. He'd already missed the six o'clock wedding ceremony, but he'd stop in for the reception. Fortunately, it was at the Palmer House Hilton, where he'd booked a room to crash in once he'd paid his respects to the bride and groom. He'd been awake for thirty-seven hours, thanks to a seatmate who snored loud enough to drown out the jet engines.
He finally fought his way free of the terminal and stepped into the balmy May air, scented with the exhaust of a thousand buses and taxis. The mild temperature was welcome after sweltering through two weeks in Hong Kong. Wearing wires and hidden video cameras under his clothing hadn't helped with the heat, either. But it had been worth it to collect the evidence his client could use in a court case against a company that stole its patented technology.
Flagging a taxi, he collapsed in the backseat and stifled a yawn. "Get me to the Palmer House Hilton in half an hour and there's an extra twenty in it for you."
The driver zoomed away. Rick leaned back, welcoming even a catnap at this point. After he wished the happy couple well, he'd get more sleep at the hotel. Considering his summer to-do list, he'd need all his wits about him.
"CONGRATULATIONS, Marco!" Rick slapped his friend
on the shoulder and received an affectionate Cuban bear hug in return. "And how about a kiss from the lovely bride?"
"Tread carefully, amigo." Marco narrowed his eyes. Rick grinned. He and Marco went way back to when Marco was a rookie DEA special agent in L.A. Before meeting Rey, Marco had successfully infiltrated a Caribbean drug cartel as a DEA agent. It had earned him the reputation of a professional badass. Rick didn't often have to use physical force in his own investigations. Intellectual property and corporate espionage cases rarely required muscle, but it was always better to be prepared than wish you had been.
Marco had promised to teach him a few fighting tricks at the gym after he got back from his honeymoon.
Ignoring his friend's mock frown, Rick planted a brotherly kiss on Rey's soft cheek. "I'm sorry I missed the wedding ceremony. I got stuck on the tarmac in Hong Kong and in customs at O'Hare."
"We're happy you made it." Marco gestured to the open bar. "Come get a drink."
"Maybe just one. I've been awake for--" he checked his watch "--thirty-eight hours, and if I have too much I'll fall asleep at the table."
Marco set his empty glass on a passing waiter's tray. "How's the PI biz, Rick? Anything interesting?"
"Some hi-tech companies in L.A. are looking for a new security provider." Rick didn't need to be any more specific. He and Marco both had fairly high clearances to work with defense contractors, especially those involved in weapons and encryption software.
"Excellent." Marco gave him a wolfish grin. "Call me if you need anything. I've been riding a desk for the past couple months."
"Because I didn't want you breaking your leg right before the wedding. Enough shop talk. Rick, would you like to meet some of my single friends?" Rey linked her arm through his and scanned the room. "Meg's here somewhere. Do you like brunettes?"
"Uhh..." The last thing he needed right now was to get involved with anyone.
Marco rolled his eyes. "Don't answer that if you value your freedom. Ever since we got engaged, she's hell-bent on playing matchmaker."
Rey released him and wrapped her arms around her husband's neck. "I want everyone as happy as we are, darling."
"No one is that happy, querida." Marco brushed a kiss across his bride's lips. He gazed into her eyes, his expression unguarded and tender.
Rick looked away and rubbed his neck. Their loving glances made him restless. Before he could cover his mouth, he yawned.
"You poor man, dead on your feet and it's only eight-thirty." Rey patted his forearm. "Why don't you go to your room and sleep? We'll be home from our honeymoon in a couple of weeks and we'll take you to dinner."
A hot flush crept up his neck. "Sorry about that. Let me splash some water on my face and I'll be fine."
"Marco says you're staying at your sister's condo while you fix up your grandmother's house for sale. How is your grandma doing?" Rey asked.
"Pretty good. She likes her new assisted living apartment."At least it was still in her familiar neighborhood.
"I'll come over with my tool belt and some beer when I'm back," Marco assured him.
The DJ came over. "Would you like to have the baile de dinero now, Señora Flores?"
"Yes, Mrs. Flores, it's time for the dollar dance." Marco grinned like a loon at using his wife's married name. "If I have to let my relatives dance with you, at least they can pay for it. And don't let Uncle Armando stuff the money down the front of your dress. That old man needs to remember he's not in a Key West strip club."
"I think I can handle Uncle Armando." Rey smiled demurely.
"I'm sure you can." Marco took her hand and they walked to the center of the dance floor. A long line of eager Cuban men were already waiting for the bride. Marco's line wasn't much shorter, though, with women ranging in age from eighteen to eighty-one.
Rick shook his head and walked toward the men's room.