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Laci Cavanaugh blamed the champagne. Normally she didn't drink anything stronger than coffee, so of course the champagne had gone right to her head.
Her best friend's wedding called for champagne, though. Laci and Alyson Banning had been friends since birth. Like Laci, Alyson had ended up being raised by her grandparents south of Whitehorse, Montana, just down the county road from each other. And while both had left for college and careers, both were now back.
Unfortunately, Alyson's return had been bittersweet. Just weeks before her wedding, her grandfather had died. With the invitations already sent, she had stuck to her plans, knowing that's what her grandfather would have wanted. The wedding reception now had the community center jam-packed, the large room shimmering with candles and silver streamers, the air alive with laughter and happy voices.
Laci had never seen her friend so blissful, and the best news of all was that Alyson and Spencer might be staying around Whitehorse after their honeymoon. All Alyson had to do was convince Spencer, and Laci didn't think that was going to be a problem given that the man clearly idolized his new bride. Laci loved the prospect of having her best friend here. She was already fantasizing about their children growing up together.
Assuming, of course, that Laci's Prince Charming came riding up soon and swept her off her feet, as Alyson's had. It had all sounded so romanticand, of course, being best friends, Alyson had told Laci everything. Love at first sight, Alyson had said. Not two weeks into the relationship she'd brought him home to meet her grandfather.
Laci had been in Billings with her cousin Maddie, so she hadn't gotten to meet Spencer that time. She'd only really got to spend any time around him at the rehearsal dinner. But she'd seen at once why Alyson had fallen for the man. He was charming and incredibly handsome, not to mention attentive and clearly crazy about Alyson.
Laci had felt a twinge of envy. Unfortunately, men like Spencer didn't come along every day. At least they hadn't for her.
As she took a sip of her champagne and watched the bride and groom dance, she was overwhelmed with happiness for her friend. The two looked so perfect together: Alyson beautiful with her long, flowing auburn hair and slender body, Spencer tall, dark and handsome as any movie star. The perfect couple.
As the dance ended, Alyson turned to say something to one of the guests. Laci found herself looking at Spencer, thinking how adorable the couple's children would be.
Spencer was smiling, his eyes on his bride as he watched her converse with the guest.
And that's when it happened.
His expression changed so quickly that Laci told herself she'd only imagined the look he gave his bride. It lasted all of a split second. Just a flicker of something dark and disturbing.
Just long enough for Laci's blood to turn to ice. Her champagne glass slipped from her fingers, shattering as loudly as a gunshot as it hit the floor. Laci didn't hear it. Nor did she see anything but the groom. It was as if only she and Spencer were in the room.
He turned his head. Maybe at the sound of the glass breaking. Or maybe he'd felt her gaze on him. His eyes locked with hers. Time stopped.
He blinked, then smiled as if he thought he could hide the fact that he was visibly shaken and upset. He knew she'd seen him. Laci gasped, not realizing until then that she'd been holding her breath. Music and laughter filled the space again. One of the caterer's crew rushed to clean up her broken glass and the spilled champagne.
She stumbled back, feeling weak and sick to her stomach as she watched her best friend turn back to Spencer and whisper something in his ear. They both laughed, then Spencer swept Alyson into his arms and whirled her across the dance floor.
"They make a beautiful couple, don't they?" said a tall brunette woman Laci didn't know but whose too-sweet perfume was making her sicker.
Laci could only nod, her heart beating so hard it hurt. She fought her way through the crowd to the back door, feeling suddenly faint as she told herself that she hadn't seen anything.
It was just the champagne. That and her overactive imagination. Or maybe she'd misread his look. She couldn't even be sure he'd been looking at Alyson.
Her mind raced.All she knew for sure was that the look she'd seen had been hateful and dangerous.And now her best friend was married to the man. Not just married to him, head over heels in love with him.
It made no sense. Why would Spencer marry Alyson if he didn't love her? Unless her friend was pregnant and he'd felt forced into the marriage?
ButAlyson would have confided in Laci if that had been the case. Aly told her everything, didn't she?
Outside, Laci took deep, gasping breaths, tears burning her eyes as she rushed around the side of the building to the darkness and leaned her palms against the wall of the community center and retched.
"Weddings have the same effect on me," said a deep male voice behind her.
She started, fearful that Spencer had followed her. But the voice had come from the playground of the one-room schoolhouse next door.
A man in a tuxedo rose from where he'd been sitting on the merry-go-round and walked toward her. He handed her the napkin that had been wrapped around the stem of his champagne glass. The paper cloth was cold and damp. Just what she needed.
She wiped her face, the chilly night air slowly bringing her back to her senses. "Must have been something I ate."
"Sure," he said. "Couldn't have been anything you drank." His sarcasm was at odds with the deep timbre of his voice. He was tall and solid-looking and vaguely familiar.
She took a step back and bumped into the wall. "You really should sit down," he said. "I need to get back inside." It was the last thing she wanted to do. Just the thought of seeing Spencer with Alyson made her feel sick again.
"Here," the man said, taking her arm. "Just sit down for a minute." He drew her over to the merry-go-round, his grip strong and sure.
"I'm fine," she protested, but she grabbed the railing and sat as her legs gave way under her.
"Yeah, you're great," he said. "If you were any better, you'd be flat on the ground."
She put her head between her knees, afraid he was right. She'd never fainted in her life, but tonight could be a first.
She told herself she'd sit for just a minute, then she had to go warn Alyson. Even as she thought it, Laci questioned the sanity of that idea. She'd spent the last twenty-nine years going off half-cocked. Never one to look before she leaped, she'd suffered the consequences of her actions, especially when it came to relationships.
Was she seriously thinking of telling Alyson about the "look" she'd seen? Aly would never believe her, especially based on some brief, questionable glance. Laci would only come off as jealous or spiteful or both.
"You all right?" he asked as he took a seat next to her.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw him finish off his champagne and set the glass down on the ground. She mumbled, "Uh-huh."
He didn't say anything after that, just leaned back against the railing and stretched out his long legs. He wore cowboy boots with his tux. Something about that made her feel a little safer in his company.
Laci concentrated on breathing and convincing herself she was losing her mind. A better alternative than thinking that her best friend had just married not only the wrong man, but also a man who was...what? Dangerous?
After a few minutes, she sat up, feeling a little better, and glanced over at the man beside her. He was staring up at the stars, both hands behind his head, his profile serene.
"Better?" he asked, not looking at her.
"Yes. Thank you." As she heard the front door of the community center open and the crowd rush out, she pushed to her feet, still feeling a bit wobbly.
"Looks like the bride and groom are about to make their departure," her merry-go-round companion said without moving.
Laci hurried toward the excited guests. She could hear the sound of a motor. Exhaust rose into the darkness as a car was pulled around to the front of the center. Within moments Alyson and Spencer would drive away.
As Laci pushed her way through the crowd, she spotted the bride and groom. Spencer had his arm around Alyson and seemed to be searching the crowd for someone.
When he spotted Laci, he said, "There she is."
"Laci!" Alyson rushed to her and threw her arms around her. "I told Spencer I couldn't possibly leave without saying goodbye to you," she said, sounding both breathless and blissful.
"Aly," Laci said, hugging her friend tightly. "I don't want you to go."
Alyson laughed. "I'll be back in a week."
"Come on, sweetheart," Spencer said beside them. Laci felt his hand on her arm. "Let me give Laci a hug, and then we really have to get moving if we hope to make our connections tonight."
"No," Laci said, fighting the feeling that this might be the last time she saw her friend. "Aly, listen, I have to tell you"
Spencer pulled her into a breath-stealing hug that stifled the rest of her words. Her skin crawled as he bent his head, his lips brushing her ear, and whispered, "Goodbye, Laci."
"No," she cried as she pulled back from him and tried to see her friend. "Aly!"
But Spencer had already turned and swept Alyson up as he rushed to the waiting car, the guests surging around the pair, cutting Laci off.
Laci could only watch through tears as her friend waved from the back window, the car speeding off down the road, the lights dying away in the darkness of the November night.
Laci Cavanaugh woke the next morning dizzy, headachy and sick to her stomach.
"How much did you drink last night?" she asked her image in the bathroom mirror and groaned. It was so unlike her to overindulge. She didn't even sample the wine when she was cooking, although most chefs did.
After the bride and groom had taken off, the bridesmaids had insisted Laci go into town with them to one of the bars. She'd been in a daze. She vaguely remembered the bartender having to ask them to leave at closing time. No wonder she felt so horrible.
But as she stared into the mirror she knew it wasn't just the drinks that had made her sick this morning. It was that niggling worry that she had tried to kill last night with alcohol. Alyson. Her best friend was in trouble.
Or was she?