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Alison Fairchild swerved her light blue compact into the parking space and killed the engine. She had just under an hour before she was to be at the rehearsal for her best friend's wedding, and she was never late for anything. Then again, maybe she should be late tonight, make a grand entrance and see the look on everyone's face when they got their first glimpse of Cooper's Corner's new and vastly improved postmistress. No, that would be too obvious. She'd just take a minute to check in with her mother and get her reaction. Then she'd be on her way. She climbed from behind the wheel and practically danced across the parking lot, her high heels clicking on the concrete, the full skirt of her silk dress swishing against her thighs.
The dress was new, a splurge from yesterday's new York shopping adventure. It was a full two inches shorter than anything else in her closet and cut low enough that a person could actually see a shadow of cleavage, if the person looked really closely. All part of her new image. Of course, the crowning touch sat right smack in the middle of her face. The Pinocchio curse was gone, and in its place was an adorable, bobbed, upturned nose. What she hadn't been blessed with she'd just bought and paid for. Smiling, she reached up and traced the outline of her nose for at least the thousandth time since the surgery three weeks ago. Yep, it was still there, changing her appearance so much that her own mother might not even recognize her, and making her feelwell, downright pretty. Not gorgeous. She didn't look like one of those sleek, airbrushed models in the fashion magazines or a Hollywood movie star, but for the first time in her twenty-eight years, she felt really good about her appearance. She rang the doorbell and waited. Even after a year, it seemed strange that her mother would live in this tiny apartment while Alison knocked around all by herself in the rambling family home. But once Nora Bashelda Fair-child made up her mind she was going to do something, there was no stopping her, though Alison had tried. Her mother wanted a smaller place, a cozy spot of her own, and she'd decided that at her age she should get what she wanted.
As for Alison, she loved the family home and all its memories, especially the ones of her and her dad shooting baskets in the backyard and his reading her books like Johnny Tremain and Call of the Wild in front of the hearth on cold winter nights. They had been exceptionally close, and she still missed him. Her mother must, too. She'd never even dated another man in all the years since her husband's death. Dale Fairchild had been a man among men.
A few seconds later Nora swung open the door, glanced at Alison and then at her watch. "Alison. What a surprise! But you should have called before driving over."
"What kind of greeting is that after I've been gone for three weeks?" She hugged her mother and stepped into the room, turning so that her mom would get the full effect.
Her mother busied herself straightening the pillows on the sofa. "i'm glad to see you, of course. I just didn't know you were coming over tonight. I already have dinner plans, but i can postpone them."
"No need. I'm on my way to the wedding rehearsal."
"Wendy Monroe and Seth Castleman's. Don't tell me you forgot."
"Only for a minute. I've been on the phone with your sister."
Explanation enough. "So, what's Madge's latest catastrophe?"
"She's changing jobs. Actually, she got fired."
"Yes, but don't take that tone of voice. It wasn't her fault this time. She spilled a little water on one of the customers. Can you imagine someone getting fired for something so harmless?"
Nowhich was why Alison figured the explanation was a gross understatement. It wasn't that she was totally unsympathetic, but Madge managed to quit or get fired from at least three jobs a yearin a slow year.
"I'm sure Madge will get another job before a week is out." Still no comment on her nose. Alison turned so that her mother could catch a glimpse of her profile, then walked a few steps closer and turned to face her again. Finally her mom looked right at her.
"Wendy is going to be a beautiful bride," Nora said. "Have you seen the wedding dress?"
"Mother, are you wearing your contact lenses?"
"I am, but I don't know what my wearing contacts has to do with Wendy's wedding dress."
"Nothing. I've seen the dress, and it's gorgeous."
"I do love weddings." Nora propped herself on the edge of the cushioned arm of the sofa, worry creases settling in around her eyes.
"I know, and you hope I'll have one someday. I still plan to, Mother, if and when I meet the right man."
"I didn't say a word." Nora stared at Alison for a minute, then stood up and walked around the sofa to straighten the pillows for the second time.
"Is something the matter?" Alison asked. "You're not sick, are you?"
"Never felt better. I was just thinking about your sister. I wish she was more like youyou know, steady and dependable. Why, you've been with the post office ever since you graduated from college."
"Steady and dependable, that's me." And mud ugly until three weeks ago. She touched the tip of her nose one more time. "Do you notice anything different about me?"
Nora tilted her head to the side and gave Alison a scrutinizing stare. "You changed your hairstyle."
"I got it trimmed and shaped at one of the hot salons in New York."
"It looks nice, but I bet you paid way too much."
"Not if it looks good." She turned again, going for the left profile. "Don't you notice anything else, something more permanent?"
"Your dress is too short, but I hope that's not permanent. Is it new?"
"I bought it yesterday. Short is in style."
"Maybe in New York."
Hair, the length of her dress, the fact that she'd come by without calling first. The only thing her mother had missed was the one thing Alison had been certain she'd notice first. Three weeks ago, you could have hung laundry from her nose. Tonight it was cute, turned up at the end, an average size. How could anyone not notice, especially her mother?
"You seem upset, dear. Didn't your vacation with Cassandra go well?"
"The vacation went fine. I feel like a new woman."
"That's nice." She glanced at her watch again.
"It wasn't purely a vacation," Alison added. "I had rhinoplasty." There. She'd blurted it out, not at all the way she'd planned.
"You had what?"
"Rhinoplasty. A nose job."
Her mother stared at her critically for a few seconds, then slapped her palm against her cheek as if she were fighting off shock. "Oh, my word. You did. But why?"
"Why? The old one was hideous."
"I loved your nose. It was your dad's nose, you know."
"Dad was six foot three. I'm five-five. I wanted my own nose, one that fit my face."
Nora walked around, studying her from all angles now that she'd finally realized her youngest daughter had gotten a nose job. "I can't believe you didn't tell me you were having it done."
"I wanted it to be a surprise."
"A bouquet of flowers is a surprise. Surgery is serious. I should have been there."
"It wasn't all that serious. The doctor did it in the morning. I was home long before dinner. Easier than dealing with Mrs. Grubecker when she comes in complaining about the price of stamps."
Nora's hand flew to her chest, as if she were holding her heart in place, a gesture she used too often for it to have an effect on either of her daughters. "What if something had gone wrong? I'd have been the last to know."
"Nothing went wrong, and you're practically the first to know."
Nora circled her, scrutinizing, as if she were checking to see if the nose was still centered on Alison's face. "It does make you look different."
"Different as in better?"
"I'm not sure. I'll have to get used to it before I make my final judgment."
"Well, you'll have plenty of time. The other one is gone for good and this is the new me."
"I never noticed anything wrong with the old you, but if the new nose makes you happy, then I can live with it. Now, you better get going. You don't want to be late for that rehearsal."
Alison had the distinct feeling she was being rushed out of the house, but it was just as well. She did have to get to the church. "I'll pick you up for the wedding," she said, opening the front door.
"That won't be necessary. My guest will drive me."
"My invitation was addressed to me and a guest. I invited someone to go with me."
"Does this guest have a name?"
Alison tossed the name around in her head for a moment. "I don't know any Ron Pickering."
"Then we're even. I didn't know you were getting a new nose. And call your sister tomorrow. She needs your emotional support at a time like this."
Alison would have liked to pursue the subject of Ron Pickering, find out exactly who he was and why he was going to Wendy and Seth's wedding as her mother's guest, but the maid of honor shouldn't keep the bride waiting.
She kissed her mother on the cheek and took her leave. A wolf whistle stopped her in her tracks halfway across the parking lot. Her mother's neighbor, Mr. Galloway, was standing in his driveway, a lecherous grin on his wrinkled and sagging face. The man was eighty if he was a day, but at least he'd noticed she was looking good. She smiled and waved.
"You've got a great pair of gams, Miss Fairchild. Reminds me of Betty Grable."
"Thanks." Too bad she hadn't reminded him of someone with a great-looking nose, but she'd settle for Betty Grable, whoever that was. And Alison refused to let her mother's reaction spoil her mood. She felt great. She looked good. And she had the most incredible excitement building inside her, as if her life was about to change forever.
Alison stopped at the door of the church and scanned the sanctuary. Wendy and Seth were nowhere in sight, but several of the bridesmaids and groomsmen were milling around the front. She'd known a few of them all her life. The others she'd met at the engagement party several weeks ago.
No reason for her not to join them, except now that she was here, she was experiencing a fluttering sensation in the pit of her stomach. She stared at Barry Jackson, remembered his taunts of "Allie Uglychild" and "Banana Nose" that had sent her home from school crying when she was in the third grade. The fluttering subsided.
We'll see what you have to say now, Barry Jackson.
"The women in Cooper's Corner have definitely gotten prettier."
She turned to find Kevin Bosco at her elbow. She'd had a crush on him her entire senior year, not that he'd ever noticed. Now he'd walked right up to her. Kevin, the hotshot Boston attorney. It was definitely the nose. She sucked in her breath and strove for a sexy, breathless voice. "Hello, Kevin."
"In the flesh." The look on his face left no doubt he was pleasantly surprised. "It's been a long time," she said.
"Too long. I'm living in Boston now."
"I've heard. An up-and-coming attorney with an impressive law firm, and making quite a name for yourself."
"You've been talking to my mother."
"She mentions you every now and then."
"You know moms."
Alison thought she had. After her mother failed to notice her new nose, she wasn't so sure anymore. But Kevin had noticed that she was looking good. "I didn't realize you were in the wedding party," she murmured.
"Then why are you at the rehearsal?"
"I had a few days vacation and Mom talked me into coming home for the weekend. I just rode over with her tonight to help her unload and set up the brass candle-holders."
Of course. Bosco's Florist was doing the flowers for the wedding. "Will you be coming to the wedding?"
"I will now."
Heat shimmied along her nerve endings and no doubt burned in her cheeks. The blush didn't fit the image she was going for, but there wasn't a lot she could do about it. She wasn't used to this kind of attention.
"How long will you be in town?"
"I'm not sure. I have a week off, but I usually start missing the excitement of the city after a few days."
Maggie Porter, looking terrific as always, motioned for Alison to join the rest of the wedding party at the front of the church. Maggie had recently moved back to Cooper's Corner after divorcing her husband, and Wendy had asked her to be one of her bridesmaids. They'd both been competitive skiers during high school.
Alison gave her an acknowledging wave and turned back to stare into Kevin's deep brown eyes. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow night."
"Count on it." He took her left hand in his. "No diamonds. I guess that means you're fair game."
Exceedingly fair, considering she hadn't had a date in months. Kevin Bosco, back in town and looking twice as gorgeous at twenty-eight as he had at eighteen. And not only had he noticed her, he was actually coming on to her. The price of the surgery was quickly becoming the bargain of her life. "I'm still single."
"Kevin, are you going to help or not?" The no-nonsense voice of Mrs. Bosco cut into Alison's thoughts.
"Duty calls," he whispered, leaning in so close she could feel his breath on her earlobe. "Any chance we can get together later tonight?"
Yes was on her tongue, but reality checked in along with her sense of responsibility. "I'm afraid not. There's a dinner party at a restaurant in New Ashford after the rehearsal, and I'm pretty much obligated to attend."
"Then we'll hook up tomorrow," Kevin said.
"Super." She watched him walk away, not quite able to believe that she, Alison Uglychild, had just turned down a date with Kevin Bosco. Not that she'd done it by choice, but nonetheless, she'd actually said no to spending at least part of the evening with the gorgeous lawyer.
She floated down the aisle to meet with the rest of the group in front of the church. For the next ten minutes, she chatted with one friend after another, playing it cool. No one mentioned her nose job, but she knew they had noticed and were talking about it.
She spotted Father Tom Christen and was about to go over and speak to him when a cheer went up from the group. The happy couple had arrived. Wendy was radiant. Seth was beaming. Love looked great on both of them. Alison didn't recognize the man walking beside Seth, which probably meant he was Seth's best man, the one guy in the wedding party that no one had met yet. All they knew was that he was a schoolteacher from New Orleans and a confirmed bachelor.
He was no Kevin Bosco, but he was definitely not bad. Kind of hard and lean. Rugged. He'd probably look great in a pair of tight jeans. The sunglasses would have to go, though. Wearing shades inside was much too Hollywood for Cooper's Corner unless you happened to be blind. At that moment she noticed the beautiful retriever walking at his side. They didn't let dogs in
Duh! The man was blind.
She'd been making fun of a blind man's sunglassesfortunately not out loud. But you would have thought Seth would have mentioned something as important as the fact that his best man was blind. The guy was laughing at something Seth said as they walked toward her. He was paying so little attention he practically tripped over his own guide dog.
Poor guy. She d be extra nice to him, though she hoped Seth didn t expect her to entertain him all night and at the reception tomorrow as well. Now that she'd finally worked up the courage to buy herself a new nose, she didn t want to waste it on a man who d never notice.