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New York City, August, the present.
Something's come up. U & M will have to pick fabulous venue for Cassie's do without me. C u tomorrow at Amber's Bridal. 11 a.m. Don't B late. R xxxx
'Reese Michael, I am going to murder you.' Gina Carrington glared at the text that had popped up on her smartphone.
This was a set-up, pure and simple.
Now her old college roomie was in the throes of second-chance nirvana with her sexy ex-and soon-to-be new-husband Mason, Reese was so full of the joys of springand Gina suspected really spectacular sexthat she was starting to make Pollyanna look like a killjoy.
The something that had come up was Reese's cock-eyed optimism, and leaving her and Marnie to have this meeting without her was her unsubtle way of getting them to kiss and make up properly after that fun-filled night a decade ago when they'd hurled words such as 'Tramp' and 'Whore' and 'Virgin' at each other before busting up the Awesome Foursome.
Gina's fingers hovered over the keypad of her phone as she cursed her own stupidity.
She should have seen this coming, as soon as Reese had suggested that the three of them organise a surprise wedding party for Cassie and Tuck, the hot jock she was scheduled to marry at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau on the Friday before Labor Day.
But the truth was, Gina hadn't given it a second thought. Reese was classy, committed to her friends and a champion organiserthe original Park Avenue Princessit had made total sense that she would come up with an idea like this.
In typical Cassie fashion, their super-geek friend had agreed to marry Tuck and then left the arrangements up to him. No fanfare, no fuss, no debauched fun or inappropriate frolics had been either planned or discussed. So after speaking to Tuck, Reese had decreed the three of them should handle that part of the programme without telling Cassie. Because Cassie would go into a geek-induced coma if they made too much fuss, they had opted to celebrate in understated styleinviting the minimalist guest list that would be witnessing the wedding at City Hall to a great meal at a great restaurant right after the event.
Hence the decision to meet at this ungodly hour of the morning in Gina's favourite diner near Grand Central Station and debate possible venues, before booking one.
But Reese being Reese had seen a way to turn what should have been a polite and straightforward affair, with her as the official gooseberry, into a peace-keeping mission of UN proportions.
Gina and Marnie had remained civil to each other, meeting again for the first time a little over a month ago, during the fiasco that was Reese's Wedding-That-Wasn't to Dylan Brookesthe original Mr Too Perfect. That should have been enough, Gina thought resentfully. They had spoken to each other, they had even joked with each other in a strained way. No insults had been hurled, no punches thrown, no eyes gouged out, which in Gina's mind was a result. But clearly, that hadn't been good enough for Reese, who was now a fully loved-up member of the sweetness-and-light club. Reese wanted all the dirty laundry properly aired and then washed cleanso the four of them could go back to being the carefree college roomies who'd hit it off instantly at Hill-brook College.
But to Gina's way of thinking, that simply wasn't ever going to happen. You couldn't go back and undo the mistakes you made. You simply had to learn to live with them. And she didn't think that Marnie would ever forgive her. Because she hadn't yet forgiven herself.
Not only that, but kissing and making up with Marnie would involve talking about a man Gina had promised herself she wouldn't even think about again, because she'd thought about him far too often in the intervening years. Namely, Marnie's big brother, Carter Price. The man she'd had one wild night with just weeks before his wedding day. A wild night the consequences of which had not only nearly destroyed her but, from what Reese had told her, had managed to screw up his life rather comprehensively too.
Gina's newly manicured nails tapped out a tattoo on the side of her smartphone as she glanced at the ornate clock on the diner's far walland the urge to quickly text Marnie and make her excuses increased. She still had ten minutes to do a runner before Marnie arrivedbecause for the first time in recordable history she was actually early.
Sighing, she locked her phone and slung it back in her bag. Ten years ago she would have gone with the urgeand run out on Marnie and the unpleasant conversation that loomed large in her foreseeable future. Because when she was nineteen, doing whatever took her fancy and then running away from the fallout had been her speciality. She smoothed damp palms over the vintage dress she'd picked up in a thrift store in Brooklyn a week ago. How inconvenient that she wasn't that reckless, irresponsible tart any more.
'Can I get you something, miss?'
Gina pasted a smile on her face at the helpful enquiry from the college kid who was waiting tables.
'Something hot and strong would be good,' she said, checking him out from force of habit.
His fresh face flushed a dull red. 'Umm What did you have in mind, miss?'
'Coffee,' she said, taking pity on him as the flush went from pink to vermillion. 'And this morning I'm going to need it neat.
He nodded. 'Coming right up.'
She watched him stroll off and smiled.
While she might not be in the market for indiscriminate flings any more, it was satisfying to know she hadn't lost her touch.
In fact, as she took a long gulp of the watery diner coffee ten minutes later, she felt almost mellow. Until the revolving door at the front of the restaurant spun round and out popped Marnie Price looking cute and efficient in her power suit and kitten heels. Gina lifted a hand to wave, and watched Marnie's expression go from keen to wary when she spotted the empty seat next to her.
The hollow roll of regret flopped over in Gina's stomach. While it was certainly true that she and the Savannah Belle hadn't had a thing in common when they'd first met at Reese's house on campusand Gina had spent most of that first month teasing Marnie mercilessly about everything from her views on love and marriage to her perfect Southern mannerstheir friendship had eventually developed into something strong and supportive and surprisingly genuine.
The truth was, Gina had felt superior to Marnie then. Gina had considered herself a sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman of the world who knew all she needed to know about men and sex and relationshipsunlike the sheltered, self-confessed Southern virgin.
But Marnie had grown on Gina, despite their differences. Because beneath those pristine Southern manners had been an admirable devotion to doing the right thing, being accountable for your actions and always believing the best of people. And then Gina had gone and mucked everything up by jumping into bed with the brother Marnie idolisedand discovered in the process she was hardly the poster girl for mature relationships either.
But if there was something Gina regretted even more than giving in to temptation that night, it was taking that bright, trusting light out of Marnie's eyes. Something that now appeared to be gone for good.
'Hi, Gina.' Marnie sent her a polite smile as she slid into the booth. 'Are we early?' she asked, probably hoping Reesewho was never latewould magically materialise and get them out of this predicament.
If only. 'Reese can't make it. Something came up, apparently.' Gina took a judicious sip of her coffee, resisting the urge to say the something was probably a key part of the hot ex-husband's anatomy.
'And I'll bet I know what it is,' Marnie murmured, making Gina choke on her coffee. 'I swear, you'd think Mason had invented sex the way Reese gushes about the guy.'
Gina put down her cup, a grin forming despite the underlying tension. 'Gushes being the operative word.'
Marnie gave a small laugh. 'All I hope is that it's more than just sex this time aroundbecause there is no way I am repackaging a billion truffles again in this lifetime.'
'Amen to that,' Gina said, toasting Marnie with her coffee mug and smiling at the memory of how the four of them had spent two solid hours taking table-top truffles out of engagement-ring-style boxes when Reese had decided to reinvent her aborted wedding to Dylan into a celebration of Well, no one had ever really figured that out.
'To be frank,' Gina added, 'if I ever see another truffle before I die, it'll be too soon.'
Marnie's lips curved, but Gina could see the concern in her pure blue eyesand had the sudden realisation that she hadn't given Marnie her due in the last month.
Seemed they'd both done quite a lot of growing up in the last decade.
After ordering herself an iced tea and some wheat toast from the blushing waiter, Marnie got right down to business, tugging a smartphone out of her briefcase. 'Okay, I've narrowed a couple of possible venues down that can accommodate a party of seven on the required date, can provide a wedding cake and meet our "classy but not too intimidating" requirements.' She pressed a few buttons, her gaze flicking to Gina. 'My personal favourite is the Tribeca Terrace. Do you know it?'
Gina nodded. 'Sure, chic and funky with sensational food and a dance floorso Cassie and Tuck can get up close and pornographic for our benefit.'
Marnie's lips quirked again. 'It's pricey, but totally worth it.'
Marnie blinked. 'What do you mean, done? We haven't gone through the other options . And don't you have any venues you want to put forward?'
'I had a couple.' Gina shrugged. 'But none of them are as perfect as the TriBee,' she said, giving it the nickname it had acquired in the foodie press. 'You nailed it in one. Why shop around?'
The waiter arrived with Marnie's toast and tea and made a bit of a production about asking Gina if she had everything she needed. As he left Gina noticed Marnie's gaze follow him, before she concentrated on buttering her toast. There was no censure in the look, just a simple acknowledgement. But Gina could still hear the words running through Marnie's head even if the well-mannered woman would rather bite off her own tongue than voice them.
There goes another of Gina's conquests.
Ten years ago, Gina would have played up to that assessment and enjoyed itand quite probably taken full advantage of whatever the young waiter had to offer. But not any more.
Placing her coffee mug back on the table, she waited for Marnie to stop buttering. When the bright blue eyes finally met hers, she could see the tension around the edges of Marnie's mouth and realised thatwhile she still had a low-grade urge to throttle Reesetheir mutual friend had been right. They needed to get this out in the open, if they were going to have any chance of getting past it and repairing the friendship between the four of them the rest of the way.
Marnie and her would never be best friends, Gina had already screwed that up for good, but surely they could be more than just civil to each other. A bit more warmth between the two of them would also take the pressure off the other twoand as both Reese and Cassie had weddings coming up, she couldn't think of a better gift to give them both.
'I'm sure we both know why Reese didn't show this morning,' she said evenly. 'And for once I'm not convinced it has anything to do with her inability to leave Mason's bed first thing in the morning while he's still in it.'
Marnie's eyes widened a fraction. She raised her napkin to her mouth to remove an invisible crumb. 'Reese has always been a peace-maker.'
She put the napkin down, folded it carefully.
'But I'm confident she'll stop trying to be Mother Teresa when we turn up at Amber's Bridal tomorrow having booked an awesome venue for Cassie's party without having gotten into a catfight in the Grand Central Diner.'
Gina's lips curved at the droll statement. 'True, but funnily enough ' She took a deep breath, fortified by the odd feeling of connection between thembecause right about now it seemed they both had a low-grade urge to throttle Reese. 'I think I can probably go one better than that.'
Wariness crossed Marnie's face. 'How?'
'By apologising for all the crappy things I said to you on our last night togetherwhich were cruel and juvenile and totally unnecessary.' She huffed out a steady breath when Marnie remained silent.
Now for the biggie.
'And more importantly by apologising for seducing your brother the week beforehandwhich was equally cruel and juvenile and totally unnecessary.' Even if it had felt very necessary at the time.
'My only excuse is that I was in a bad place at the time.' A bad place that had got a whole lot worse in the months after that night. 'And I did bad things as a resultincluding being a heartless, reckless, selfish, philandering tart. And although I can't promise that I won't do bad things againbecause if there's one thing I despise more than a heartless tart, it's a hypocriteI'm trying a lot harder not to.'
Marnie's face remained unnervingly impassive, before she gave her head a little nod. 'Thanks for the apology. But if you were being cruel and juvenile, I was too. And ' She paused. 'While I could have done without such a graphic description of my brother's ' she coughed, clearly struggling to get the word out ' assets, you didn't say anything that wasn't true.' She looked down at her hands, which were mangling the carefully folded napkin. 'Carter was the one that cheated, Gina. Not you.' Her eyes met Gina's, disillusionment clouding the blue depths. 'And after seeing his marriage die a slow, painful death and seeing what a player he's become since his divorceI don't think you should take all the blame.'
A player? Carter?
Gina's throat constricted as the memories she'd filed carefully away in the 'biggest disaster of my life' box had a coming-out party.