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"Ladies, if you would gather by the chocolate fountain, Mrs. Charles Weston is about to throw her bouquet." Colton St. John had been best man at the wedding of two of his oldest friends, and now he was acting as the master of ceremonies.
The town had been founded by his forefathers, and leadership came easily to him. At twenty-eight, the dark-haired, blue-eyed Colton would have been a more likely movie star than a law school graduate and the youngest mayor St. John's Cove had ever elected.
Not that Samantha Hall, bridesmaid, was admiring the confidence and finesse of her dear friend, Colton, at the moment.
It's nearly over, she told herself as she slid toward the exit of the St. John's Cove Yacht Club. It was hard to be unobtrusive in the bridesmaid's gown that Amanda—make that Mrs. Charles Weston—had chosen. Amanda had glowingly described the color as fuchsia, but it wasn't. The dress was the exact shade of pink Sam's current stray rescued dog, Waldo, had thrown up after eating the Jell-O salad Sam had made for Amanda's bridal shower earlier in the week.
As if the color wasn't hideous enough, Sam considered the dress just a little too everything for a wedding. Between hitching up the hem so she wouldn't trip over it, pulling the tiny spaghetti straps back on her shoulders every time they slipped down, and tugging at the plunging V-line of the bodice, the dress had felt like a full-time job since she had first put it on nearly twelve hours ago.
Even her three older brothers, who usually teased unmercifully when she put on "girl" clothes, had gone silent when she had come out to the car and they'd seen the dress for the firsttime.
"I thought you said it looked like dog puke," her oldest brother, Mitch, had said, holding open the door of his ancient station wagon for her. She was driving with her brothers to the wedding because she couldn't manage the clutch of her Land Rover in the three-inch heels, plus was afraid of splitting the hind end out of the dress getting in and out of her higher vehicle.
And then Mitch had done the oddest thing. He'd kissed her cheek and said, almost sadly, "When did you go and grow up, Sam?"
Since she'd been living in her own apartment above the business she had founded here in St. John's Cove after graduating from high school seven years ago, his comment had been insulting rather than endearing.
Trust a man! Show a little too much cleavage, pile your hair on top of your head and put on a bit of makeup, and you were all grown-up.
Her brothers' reaction had foreshadowed an uncomfortable evening. Guys she had spent her whole life in this small Cape Cod hamlet with—boating and swimming and fishing—had been sending her sidelong looks as if she'd gone and grown a second head.
Thankfully most of them were too scared of her brothers to do anything about it except gawk.
Though there was one man—he'd been introduced in the reception line on the steps of St. Michael's Church as Amanda's cousin, Ethan Ballard—who hadn't been able to take his eyes off of her through the whole evening.
He was gorgeous, too. Tall, lean, broad-shouldered. Dark. Dark eyes, dark hair.
Sam killed the intrigue he made her feel.
He'd asked her to dance four times, but she'd said no. Even his voice gave her the shivers, deep and measured.
The truth was she didn't know how to dance, and wasn't going to make a fool of herself by trying for the first time in the heels. The truth was, Ethan was asking the illusion to dance. If he'd seen her in her normal duds—rolled-up jeans, sneakers, a faded shirt that advertised her pet store and supply business, Groom to Grow, he would have never looked that interested.
Of course, there was always the possibility one of the local guys had dared him to show interest in her, or offered him twenty bucks to dance with her.
Knowing that any man in St. John's Cove who went near Samantha Hall was going to have to run the gauntlet of her brothers.
Sam glanced over to where Ethan was standing, one shoulder braced against the wall, his tie undone, his crisp white shirt open against the end-of-June early-summer heat in the reception room. He was nursing a drink and still looking at her.
And he didn't look like a fool, either. Ethan Ballard radiated the confidence, wealth and poise one would expect from a businessman from Boston.
He raised his glass to her, took a long, slow sip without taking his eyes from her. Now how could that possibly seem suggestive, make her insides melt into hot liquid?
How about because she hadn't had a date in over a year? And that date had been with a sumpie—she and her friends' pet name for summer people—because the locals were afraid to ask her out. And with good reason. After one drink, her brother Mitch had shown up at the Clam Digger, glowering and flexing muscles earned from plying his strength and guts against the waters of the Atlantic to make his living as a lobsterman.
To the local male population, she was Sam, not Samantha. She could outrun, outsail and outswim most of them—it was a well-known fact no one had beaten her in a race to the buoys since she was sixteen. But even if the local young men weren't totally intimidated by that, nobody wanted to deal with the Hall brothers, Mitch, Jake and Bryce, when it came to their little sister.
Which was okay with her. Fairy tales had finished for her family when her mom and dad had been killed in a boating accident when she was twelve. Mitch, newly married, had stepped up to the plate and taken in his siblings, but his wife, Karina, had not bargained for a ready-made family of two rowdy teenage brothers, and a twelve-year-old girl swimming in pain. Karina, Sam's one chance for a bit of feminine influence, had jumped ship.
Her brothers had raised her so she could fight but not put on makeup, handle a fishing rod but not wear heels, arm wrestle but not dance. They'd given her an earful about what men really wanted.
Plus, all three of her brothers had taken Karina's abandonment personally and were commitment phobic, and so was she.
Most of the time. Occasionally Sam felt this odd little tug of wistfulness. She felt it when she watched couples walk hand in hand along the beach at sunset, she felt it when old Mr. and Mrs. Nelson came into her shop, their teasing affection for one another reminding Sam of her mom and dad.
And Sam had felt it with surprising strength when Charlie and Amanda had exchanged their vows earlier at St. Michael's, Amanda glowing, and Charlie choking up on emotion.
Sam's own eyes had teared up, and she was so unaccustomed to that, she didn't have a tissue, and so unaccustomed to mascara that she didn't know crying in it would have unfortunate consequences.
And she had reacted like that even though she personally felt that if there were ever two people who should not have gotten married, it was Charlie and Amanda!
The pair were part of a tight-knit group of six friends, Colton St. John, Vivian Reilly and Sam's brother Bryce, who had been hanging out together since grade school. Sam was the youngest of the group—she had started as a tagalong with Bryce. Amanda and Charlie had been dating on and off since they were fourteen, their relationship punctuated with frequent drama, constant squabbling, and hundreds of breakups and makeups.
Ah. Sam's hand connected with the steel bar of the exit door of the reception hall. She pushed, caught a whiff of the fresh June breeze coming in off the bay. Freedom. On an impulse, she turned and wagged her fingers at Ethan Ballard, goodbye.
"Oh, no, you don't," Vivian Reilly said. Vivian, also a charter member of the Group of Six, was the other bridesmaid, and she caught Sam's arm just as she was halfway out the door.
"How come the dress doesn't look like dog puke on you?" Sam asked, wishing she could take back that impulsive wag of the fingers.
The color of the dress should have clashed with Vivian's incredible red hair, but, of course, it didn't. Vivian looked leggy and beautiful, but then Vivian could wear a grain sack and make it look sexy. If anything, the dress was slightly more demure than Vivian's usual style.
"It mustn't look all that bad on you, either," Vivian said with a laugh. "Check out that man staring at you. I'm getting heat stroke from it. He's glorious. Ethan something? Amanda's cousin?"
Ethan Ballard. Sam remembered his name perfectly, not to mention the touch of his hand in that reception line. Lingering. Sam slid Amanda's cousin another look, and looked away, though not before her heart tumbled in her chest, and she felt the tug of something a lot stronger than the wistfulness she felt when she looked at old Mr. And Mrs. Nelson picking out a new collar for their badly spoiled Pom, Duffy.
Ethan Ballard was glorious. And no doubt just as superficial as every other guy in the world, including her brothers. She did not kid herself that the good-looking cousin would have given her a second look if her hair was pulled back into its usual no-nonsense ponytail, her eyes were not smudged with the plum shadow that Vivian and Amanda insisted made them look greener, and her chest wasn't falling out of the embarrassingly low-cut dress.
The door clicked shut again, and Sam, resigned, tugged at the dress. She glanced up to see Ethan Ballard watching, an amused smile playing at the handsome, firm line of his wide mouth.
There was that hot rush again, so she stuck her nose in the air so he wouldn't ever guess.
"Come on," Vivian said, steering Sam back toward the gaggle of giggling single girls and women waiting for the traditional throwing of the bouquet. "Be a sport."
Amanda was standing at the front of the room now, still glowing, a queen looking benevolently at her subjects. No doubt she was kidding herself that this was the best day of her life, Sam thought cynically.
As soon as Vivian let go of her arm, Sam moved way up to the front of the gathering of hopefuls. She'd played ball with the bride, and Amanda had a strong throwing arm. As long as she didn't do the I'm-cute-and-helpless routine, that bouquet should sail right over Sam's head and hit old Mable Saunders in the back row.
Sixty and never married.
Which will probably be me someday, Sam thought, and given that she was cynical about the institution of marriage she was not sure why the thought made her feel more wistful—and gloomy—than before.
The truth was the whole day had made her feel gloomy, not just because she didn't hold out much hope for Amanda and Charlie—why would they be the one out of two couples who succeeded when they hadn't ever managed to go more than three days in their whole relationship without a squabble—but because Sam didn't like change.
Her five friends were the unchangeable anchor in her life. Vivian, Amanda, Charles, Colton and Sam's brother Bryce had all hung out together for as long as she could remember. Oh, some of them moved, went to college, came back, but the ties remained unbreakable. The constancy of family and friendships were what made life in the small Cape Cod community idyllic for its three thousand permanent residents.
This was the biggest change they had experienced. A wedding. Sam didn't like it. She didn't like it one bit.
Though she had to admit Amanda did look beautiful in her wedding dress, beaming at them all from the front of the room.
The dress, considering the sudden haste to get married, was like something out of a fairy tale, a princess design of a tight-fitting beaded bodice and full floor-length skirt with about sixty-two crinolines underneath it.
Amanda's eyes met hers, full of mischief, so Sam was relieved when someone suggested Amanda turn around with her back to them all, so she couldn't choose who to toss the bouquet to. As soon as Amanda did turn around, Sam shuffled positions, moving closer to the burbling chocolate fountain, still close to the front, gambling on Amanda's good arm.
What she couldn't have gambled on was this: Amanda threw the bouquet over her shoulder with all her might. It arched up and up and up toward the ceiling.
Those who really were eager to catch the thing moved back in anticipation of where it would fall back to earth.
But the bouquet hit an exposed beam, and instead of completing its arc, it fell straight down like a duck shot out of the sky.
It was going to land right in the middle of the chocolate fountain.
Unless someone intervened.
For an uncharitable moment, Sam swore it was not going to be her.
But she caught a glimpse of the horrified look on Amanda's face and wondered in that split second if it wasn't some kind of bad luck for the bouquet not to be caught, to land smack dab in the middle of a pool of burbling chocolate.
Amanda and Charlie were going to need all the luck they could get.
Reluctantly Sam reached out an arm, and the bouquet fell into her hand as if it had been destined to find her.
A cheer went up, though she could hear the lusty challenge of Mitch.
"Anyone who thinks they're going to marry my sister is going to have to arm wrestle me first."
Sam smiled, with so many teeth she felt like a dog snarling, waved the bouquet and headed for the exit.
So that's my future wife, Ethan Ballard thought, watching the bridesmaid head out the exit onto the stone veranda that faced the sea. He bet she was going to hurl that bouquet right off of there, too. He hadn't missed her thwarted attempt at escape earlier, or the way she had looked during the dinner and the toasts. Cynical. Uncomfortable. Bored.
The least romantic woman in the room. Perfect.
He'd been pretty sure she was the one from the moment he'd laid eyes on her. Despite the sexy outfit, and the abundance of rich chocolate upswept hair, he could tell by the sunburn and freckles that she was the wholesome, outdoorsy type that he imagined the Finkles would love.
She'd be perfect for the task he had in mind. When he'd held her hand a little too long in the reception line she'd yanked it away and given him a dirty look with those sea-mist eyes of hers.
Ditto for his offers to dance with her. Though Ethan felt faintly stung—who didn't want to dance with him—it boded well for his plan.
Samantha Hall was the girl least likely to appreciate his offer of marriage. Least likely to want anything else once the assignment was over.