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The Wedding Belles' three-story townhouse in the heart of Boston was always a flurry of activity, but that Friday, the number of people and the noise level they created had hit new heights. Bridesaccompanied by their attendants and clucking mothersfilled the offices and spilled into the hallways. The scent of chocolate cake wafted through the air. A rainbow of color flowed from gowns through flower arrangements and favors for the reception dinner tables. Sequins on white bride dresses and veils caught the morning sun pouring in through the windows and sent flashes of light through the foyer, into the corridors, up the stairs.
Audra Greene, accountant for Wedding Belles, worked her way through a gaggle of giggling bridesmaids, creating a rustle of satin and lace. She edged around the wedding party considering various shades of blue and the party trying on dresses in pinks and lavenders, smiling politely and saying, "Hello," and "Excuse me," on her way to her third-floor office.
Finally there, she closed the thick wooden door and leaned against it with a sigh.
The Belles' copper-haired, pixie-featured general assistant, Julie Montgomery, laughed. "It's a jungle out there."
Removing her navy blue coat, Audra strode to her antique desk. "How many weddings are they working on?"
"Let's see. The weddings for June of next year are in the initial planning stages. September brides are finalizing details."
"And April brides are panicking?" Audra hung her coat in the closet before she slid onto her tall-backed brown suede chair in front of the billowing yellow silk drapes that gave the room the rich, elegant feel that she loved.
Julie tilted her head, considering that."The Belles like to think of it as maximizing last-minute opportunities." With a chuckle, she went back to inputting invoices into the computer to pay that month's bills.
Audra's chest tightened as she watched Julie. The as-sistantand the Belles for that matterhad no reason to check into the most recent deposit in the business account and discover it was actually every cent of Audra's savings. Or that the estimated income taxes they'd sent in wouldn't cover this year's bill. Paying the difference would drain the Wedding Belles' coffers and they wouldn't have enough money for the wedding they'd promised to Julie. But Audra knew.
Still, she didn't immediately turn on her computer and begin writing the e-mail to the other Belles about their dire financial straits. She needed to tell themthis morningbefore Julie's wedding plans went any further. But she couldn't do it in front of Julie.
"Julie, would you do me a favor?"
Always eager to please, Julie quickly glanced up. "Sure."
"I should have grabbed a bottle of water from the kitchen, but I have something I have to do right now. It can't wait" Loath to ask the Belles' assistant to run this kind of personal errand, Audra had no choice. She needed a few minutes of privacy, and when Julie entered invoices for payment she shared Audra's office. "Could you get me a bottle of water?"
Julie sprang from her seat. "I can't believe you'd hesitate to ask me! I'm so indebted to you guys. I'd do anything for any of you."
At the gratitude and affection she heard in Julie's voice, Audra winced. "Please, you don't need to say that."
Julie smiled radiantly, her pretty blue eyes shining. "Are you nuts? That's like saying I shouldn't be grateful! There isn't enough gratitude in the world to show you how much I appreciate what you're doing for me."
Disappointment tightened Audra's chest, squeezing her heart. Julie was the kindest, most unselfish person Audra knew and life had treated her abysmally. The Belles weren't paying for her wedding because they were wonderful. They had made the decision because Julie was wonderful. Sweet. And she deserved the kindness. Audra felt as if she, personally, were the one letting her down. After all, she was the one in charge of finances.
At the office door, Julie turned with a smile. "I'll be back in a second."
Heartsick, Audra said, "Take your time."
Julie left the room, and Audra sank into her chair, turned on her computer and was about to begin composing the e-mail to the Belles explaining that they couldn't afford to pick up the tab for Julie's wedding. But with Julie's appreciation still hanging in the air, she couldn't do it. The words simply wouldn't come. The most she could write was a request for an emergency meeting in the conference room. She hit Send, then shifted over to a word-processing program to try to compose a few lines she could say in the meeting to tell the Belles they couldn't afford Julie's wedding.
Once again, she couldn't think of a way to soften the blow of having to break a promise. So, instead of typing on her keyboard, Audra reached for her phone and tapped out the numbers for her mother's cell phone.
"Are you busy?"
"Always," her mother said with a laugh. "But you never call me at work, so you must have a problem that's more important than the blueberry pies I'm baking."
Worried that Julie would return in the middle of her story, Audra said, "I don't have time to explain, but we're out of money."
Her mother gasped. "Wedding Belles is going bankrupt?"
"No, we have enough money to make it through the next few months if we're careful. The problem is we promised our assistant a wedding. If we give her the wedding we've been planning, we'll end up over our heads in debt. If we don't, we have to go back on our word."
"Oh, honey. That's terrible."
Audra glanced at the door. "I shouldn't have called. Julie's going to be back any second and I can't talk in front of her. But I feel awful and I don't know what to do. I can't even think of a way to explain our problem in an e-mail to the Belles. I'm a mess!"
"Wow, for you to admit you can't organize or plan yourself out of a situation, things must be bad. Dominic's gone," she said referring to Dominic Manelli, the youngest of the Manelli children, current CEO of Manelli Holdings, only resident of the family home and Mary Greene's employer. "Left as if his feet were on fire. So why don't you come over? I'll make coffee. We'll talk. Two heads are always better than one. Maybe together we could come up with something?"
The prospect of getting out of the office relieved some of Audra's stress. Even thinking about staying in the same room with Julie while she entered invoices and chatted happily about her wedding sent a dagger through Audra's heart. And her mother was smart. Analytical. That's where Audra had gotten her own logical thinking ability. Maybe together they could figure a solution to this problem? Or if nothing else, maybe they could find a way to soften the blow, not just for Julie, but for the Belles who would be devastated at not being able to keep their promise.
"I'll be over in about twenty minutes."
"I should have pie for you by then."
Audra laughed. Her mother always knew how to make her feel better. "Just make a crust and lots of chocolate pudding."
Her mother chuckled. "Should I have whipped topping?"
"Yes!" She sighed. "Thanks, Mom."
Audra hung up the phone and rose from her seat just as Julie entered the room. "Here's your water."
"Thanks." Audra set the bottle on her desk, then pulled her practical coat from the closet and shrugged into it. "I need to go out. I'll be gone for most of the morning. If anybody's looking for me, they can reach me on my cell."
Looking a bit perplexed, Julie said, "Okay."
Audra slipped out of the office. In the corridors and on the stairs, she once again battled brides, bridesmaids and sparkly gowns to get to the door and out into the fat fluffy flakes falling on Boston.
Traffic prevented her from making it to the Manelli estate in twenty minutes as she'd hoped. Almost forty minutes had passed before the guard at the gate let her onto the property. The heavy snow that had been falling steadily clung to the lush evergreens that lined the long lane and the bare branches of stately oaks in the front yard, making the Manelli estate a winter wonderland.
Audra drove around the circular driveway to the servants' entrance, and was surprised to find a pretty blue Mercedes parked in front of the kitchen door.
Getting out of her car, she noticed a man dipping into the backseat of the car. Dressed in a black suit and topcoat with a white scarf around his neck, he looked as if he could have stepped off the cover of a magazine. Except, when he pulled out of the car again, he was wrestling a baby, a diaper bag and a bottle.
The baby, a boy if the blue snowsuit was any indicator, wiggled out of the extra blanket wrapped around him. It landed in a puddle in the driveway. Then the bottle fell. Then the diaper bag. Even the baby slipped a bit.
Audra ran over. "Here," she said, stooping down to gather the soaked blanket, bottle and diaper bag.
Recognizing the voice, Audra snapped her gaze upward. "Dominic?"
He looked down. "Yes?"
Baby items in hand, she rose. She'd last seen Dominic Manelli when she was twelve, attending her final Manelli employee Christmas party with her mother. That would have been fourteen years ago. The teenage Dominic she remembered from her childhood had grown into a tall, lean man. His black hair was as short as he could possibly wear it, making his wide brown eyes his most prominent feature. His once boyish grin was now a sexy smile.
"It's me. Audra Greene. Mary's daughter."
"Oh, my goodness! Audra!" His gaze rippled from her blond hair, down her simple coat. "Wow. Look at you. All grown-up."
"Yep." She laughed, but having Dominic notice her as a woman made her tummy flip-flop. She'd had a monster crush on him most of her childhood. "Time didn't stop just because my mother wished it would."
Dominic chuckled, juggling the baby, who appeared to be about six months old. Wisps of yellow hair peeked out from the pale blue hood of a one-piece snowsuit. Curious blue eyes studied Audra.
"Whoever decided babies' winter wear should be made of slippery material needs to be shot." He jostled the baby again. "I'll never get used to holding him!"
Audra didn't know Dominic had gotten married, let alone that he'd had a child, but her mother didn't talk about the family she worked for. That was one of the reasons the Manellis loved and trusted her and had promoted her over the years from cook all the way to household manager.
"Your baby looks about six months old. If you're not accustomed to holding him by now, you're in trouble."
"He's not mine." He sucked in a breath. "Well, he is now. Joshua is my brother Peter's son."
Audra nearly groaned at her stupidity. It had been all over the papers three months ago when Dominic's brother, Peter, and his wife had been killed when their private plane went down in a wooded area in New York. "Oh, Dominic. I'm so sorry."
"It's all right."
"No, it's not. I should have realized this was Peter's son." To shift the conversation from the painful topic, Audra hoisted the diaper bag over her shoulder and opened her arms to the baby. "Let me take him while you get the rest of his things out of your car."
Dominic unexpectedly laughed. "I'd let you take him, but I can't get the rest of his things out of the car. I don't even know how they installed the car seat. Forget about figuring out how to take it out. And I have to take it out. I'll be using the SUV for him from now on. I should have thought that through before taking this car to pick him up."
"You want the car seat out?"
"I'll get it." With a smile, she handed him Joshua's bottle and slid the diaper bag up his arm onto his shoulder. "I have four nieces and nephews. If I want to take them for ice cream I have to be able to get all their seats out of my sisters' cars and into mine."
"Wouldn't it be simpler just to take your sister's car?"
She frowned. "I have two sisters. I can't drive two cars at once. I have to take the seats out of one of them."
He chuckled again. "I forgot what a stickler for detail you are."
She made a face at him, then ducked into the back seat of his Mercedes, inspecting for the belts and clasps that secured the seat. "After all the fun we had slipping out of your family's employee Christmas parties, how could you forget me?"
"I didn't forget you. I said I forgot what a stickler for detail you are."