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"How's the bride?" Penny Montgomery stepped into the church dressing room, where her best friend since childhood, Maggie Brown, was getting ready to walk down the aisle. This church, one of five in the small town of Tawnee Valley, was the one Maggie's mother had dragged Maggie and Penny to when they were growing up.
"Nervous. Excited. Trying to remember to breathe." Maggie hadn't stopped smiling. Her gown was lovely and simple. Classically A-lined styled with no train. Her light hair was pulled up in a loose knot with tendrils left to play around her neck. She looked stunning and had the truest heart of anyone Penny had ever known.
"You look beautiful," Penny said. "Your mother would have loved to see you like this."
Maggie nodded. Tears sparkled in her eyes but they didn't fall. For years, Penny and Maggie had been each other's rock. Now Maggie had found her dream man and was forming a family. Penny had Maggie and that was enough family for her. "Mom would be happy."
A lump formed in Penny's throat and she coughed to clear it. "Brady wanted me to give you this."
She held out the little gift-wrapped box.
"Thank you, Penny." Maggie held on to Penny's hand. "I mean it. For everything. For being with me when everything was so hard and for nudging me in the right direction when I needed a shove."
"What are best friends for?" Careful of her long slip dress, Penny stepped back and sat on the antique couch. The pale gold silk gown slid against her skin.
She ran a finger over the worn velvet of the couch. If it were refinished it might fetch a nice price in What Goes Around Comes Around, her antiques store, but it suited the old chapel the way it was. Years of wear from weddings to funerals to christenings had made this couch unique. The story behind antiques always made them more valuable in Penny's eyes.
"Well," Penny prompted, needing to lighten the mood. "Open the gift. I bet it's a ring. Probably the kind that vibrates. You know, the kind that goes on his"
"Penny!" Maggie was too serious for her own good sometimes. Penny just smiled and shrugged. She hoped that she helped to corrupt her friend just a little.
"Just because that would be something you'd like for a gift " Maggie took off the ribbon and opened the box. She drew out two diamond drop earrings. "Oh, my."
"Looks like someone is making up for lost time." Penny smiled, kicked off her heels and drew her already-aching feet under her. The devil himself had made those heels, but she wouldn't tell Maggie that.
"Brady being here now is all that matters." The light caught in the facets of the diamonds and burst into tiny dancing lights around the room. "They are so lovely."
"I'm so happy for you." And Penny meant it. If anyone deserved a happy ending, it was Maggie.
Penny wasn't made for marriage. Whenever she wanted a man, all she had to do was go out and find one. The clubs were only an hour away in Springfield. And if she just wanted to stay warm at night, Flicker, her new shaggy puppy, could help her out.
Maggie put the earrings on and turned to face Penny.
"How do I look?"
"Like you are in love. Glowing. When Brady sees you, he's going to be the happiest man in the world." Maggie's bliss was contagious. It radiated from her like the brightest star. Maggie had made it through all the suffering and losing her mom.
After a moment, Maggie gave Penny a worried-momma look. "Luke made it in last night."
"Great." Penny gave Maggie a grin, even though her heart beat a little heavier. "It would look a little weird if I didn't have a best man to walk me down the aisle. Plus he's going to be part of your family soon."
"Are you sure you are okay with this?"
Penny took a deep breath and gave Maggie a reassuring look. "It was nine years ago, Maggie. Teenage puppy love. I'm sure he's over it by now. I am."
"So no drama?" Maggie raised her eyebrow.
"If there's drama, I won't be the cause of it." Penny uncurled from the couch and stood, shaking any wrinkles out of the floor-length gown. The energy levels in her body had suddenly surged and she couldn't sit anymore. Suppressing a whimper, she shoved her feet back in her shoes. She nervously checked the mirror. Her makeup hadn't smeared. Her red hair had been pulled into a tight bun, and at least one can of hair spray had plastered it into place. With the extra few inches the heels provided, she'd at least be able to look Luke Ward in the chin after all these years.
The noise level in the hallway picked up. Someone knocked on the door.
"Five minutes, ladies." The door muffled an older woman's voice beyond recognition.
"He's not seeing anyone," Maggie continued. She picked up her veil and worked the comb into her hair.
"Too bad for him, I guess." Penny held the end of the veil and straightened it to keep busy. "Seriously, Maggie, I'll be okay. Luke is here for one weekend. The worst thing that could happen is that I'll step on his foot during the bridal party dance with these fabulous heels and he'll have to bandage himself up."
"If you're sure " Maggie didn't sound as if she believed Penny.
"I'm sure that if we don't get out there soon, the groom will think you ran away." Penny picked up the bridal bouquet and handed it to Maggie. "You worry about walking down that aisle and not about me."
Penny gave Maggie a once-over before picking up her own flowers. The last thing her friend should be worried about today was what would happen when Luke and Penny were in the same room for the first time since she had driven him away.
It was not as if they had the type of love that would last forever. Teenage love never did. First loves never did.
Luke had been heading off to college, and she'd barely earned the grades to graduate high school. If it weren't for What Goes Around Comes Around, the only work Penny would be qualified for was as either a gas station attendant or a fast-food worker. When she had inherited the quaint store along Main Street from her grandmother, it had been bleeding money, but the shop meant too much to Penny to let it fail. After her grandmother died, she had no family left to rely on. Her father had been a no-show since she was born, and her mother had ditched her years ago to continue boozing without a child in tow. But Penny was an adult now. She had managed to turn the shop around and make it a tourist attraction in their little one-stoplight town.
Through it all, she'd always had Maggie's support. Maggie and her daughter, Amber, were her family, and she wouldn't dream of making a fuss on one of the happiest days of Maggie's life. Even if that meant putting up with Brady Ward's younger brother.
The moment she stepped into the hallway, she saw him.
Luke stood about a dozen feet in front of her. The air around her crackled with energy. Dark hair, blue eyes, towering height, these were all features shared by the Ward brothers. Luke wasn't as tall as Sam, the oldest brother, but he still towered over her even in her three-inch heels. The lankiness of high school was gone, replaced by a filled-out but trim figure his tuxedo suited just fine. His dark hair curled slightly at the ends, where it touched his collar. If this were any other man, Penny would be placing bets that she would have him in her bed before the night was over.
But this was her Luke. At least he had been hers. Behind the bleachers, in the backseat of her car, in the field on a blanket looking up into a night sky that seemed to go on forever. They'd made promises neither of them were old enough to keep. Things had seemed so clear to her then. He loved her. He'd promised forever, but she knew forever was just a word. Love didn't matter. Back then it had been only a matter of time. And whennot ifhe had left her, she would have been the one picking up the pieces. She straightened her shoulders and loosened the death grip on her flowers.
Plastering a smile on her face, she stepped forward.
"Penny!" Amber's voice burst out from behind Luke and the speeding golden bullet of eight-year-old energy raced toward her. "Penny! Penny! You have to meet my uncle Luke. I have two uncles now. And he's a doctor."
Penny was powerless as Amber grabbed her hand and dragged her toward Luke. Not exactly the image she'd wanted to project, but Amber didn't wait for graceful entrances.
"Amber, I've met your uncle Luke. We went to school together." Penny managed to not fall off her heels as Amber stopped in front of Luke.
"She's got quite the grip, doesn't she?" Luke smiled down at Amber as Penny tried to compose herself.
Amber spotted Maggie and took off in the direction of her mother.
"You should see her with my puppy, Flicker." Penny held her breath as Luke's gaze floated over her dress up to her face. She wasn't eighteen anymore. What if he didn't like what he saw?
Nonsense. She never let a man make her feel insecure.
Luke finally met her eyes. "I'm supposed to walk you down the aisle."
Her world was lost in a sea of blue, so rich and inviting that if she could, she would strip naked and dive into their warm depths. Warmth soaked through her body and her knees felt loose in their sockets.
She shook herself out of his spell and managed a smile that didn't feel entirely plastic. "Yes, you are."
"Or from the looks of those heels, keep you from falling on your ass?" That mischievous twinkle she'd always loved lit in his eyes.
"Oh, these little things?" Penny lifted her shoe to contemplate it.
Apparently the past was where it belonged: in the past. She smiled easier. Luke hadn't changed much since high school, but his shoulders seemed less tight. Maybe he'd finally learned to let things go. When she'd first noticed him as more than just another classmate, he'd been filled with anger and grief after the death of his parents. She knew what it was like to be left by the ones you loved. And even though his parents hadn't meant to leave, the pain he'd felt had seemed close to her own.
"Looks like we'll be spending most of the evening together," Luke said.
Penny blinked up at him as her stomach gave a little flip of joy at the remembrance of nights spent in his arms. Hot nights in the back of her beat-up Chevy. They'd laughed and forgotten about the rest of Tawnee Valley while they lost themselves in exploring each other. Fogged windows. Naked skin to naked skin. His hands and mouth had made her forget how to breathe.
"I'm the best man," he said, slowly. "And you're the maid of honor ."
"Of course." She tried to laugh it off, but it came out stilted as she tried to control the heat bubbling within her. "I'd hate to keep you from your date, though."
"I didn't bring one."
"She couldn't make it?" Penny fished just a little, knowing that if there was a she, Penny needed to shut down this attraction. She didn't mess with taken men.
"There isn't a she." He looked over her shoulder briefly before returning his gaze to her eyes. "What about your date? Won't it make him jealous that I'll have you in my arms most of the night?"
"If he existed, it probably would." The men she hooked up with were always free agents and never more than that. "I guess that means I'm yours tonight."
His dark eyebrow lifted as if his train of thought had just arrived at the same station. A spark of awareness raced down her spine.
"If everyone could line up," Beatrice Miller called out in her singsong voice. The kindergarten teacher helped out at the church for the wedding coordinator. She treated every wedding party like a group of five-year-olds who needed to get in line and wait patiently for their turn. Many of them had had her as a teacher, so it wasn't hard for her to rein them in.
Luke held out his elbow, and Penny hesitated for only a moment before slipping her hand over his jacketed arm. They were to be the first down the aisle.
"Mom and Dad should be here," Luke said so softly that she almost missed it.
Her fingers squeezed his arm and she leaned against him. "Yes."
As they stood by the door waiting for the procession music to begin, the crisp, clean scent of Luke wafted over her. He pulled her in tightly to his side. His warmth penetrated her silk dress. He was as solid next to her as he'd always been. Almost as much a safe haven to her as her grandmother's antiques store had been when she was young. Had he stayed in Tawnee Valley, would things have been different for them?
The doors to the chapel opened, and Penny straightened and put on her smile. This was Maggie's day. The past was gone. Only right now mattered. The entire town had turned out for the wedding. And they were all looking at her walking arm in arm with Luke Ward.
She could almost see the matchmaking gears in ole Bitsy Clemons's head turning on overload. Bitsy had brought every eligible man in Tawnee Valley to Penny's store. As if Penny would die if she didn't marry soon.
It was bad enough to be walking down the aisle with an ex, but to do so in front of everyone who had known how hot and heavy they had been
They made it to the preacher and split ways. As Luke went to the other side of Brady, she turned and their eyes met. She saw a hint of humor and speculation in those eyes. She could definitely lose herself in him for a night or two. After all, he could only improve with age.
Amber started down the aisle and tossed wildflowers on the path before her. When she reached the front, she turned and sat in the pew next to Sam Ward.
The music changed and the doors reopened to reveal the bride. The congregation stood as she walked slowly down the aisle with a smile filled with such love that Penny couldn't stop the tears that sprang to her eyes.
As she reached the wedding party, Maggie passed her bouquet to Penny to hold and took Brady's hands.
Brady looked as if he'd just been handed the most precious gift in the world. It hit something inside of Penny, and she had to look away. Luke came into sharp focus.
Years ago, she'd thrown away what they had together, but she'd never forgotten. Every man she had been with, she compared to him, never truly letting him go. Once tomorrow came, she'd have to let him go again, but tonight was filled with potential.