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The energy in the reception hall felt charged. Dance floor in full bloom, the buzz of conversation hummed against lively music. Waiters in black ties darted throughout the ballroom, balancing trays spiked with bubbling champagne flutes. Sara Sullivan hardly noticed the group of giddy bridesmaids that had gathered in a corner near the stage.
It was only about the millionth time in her fifteen-year-old life that she'd attended a party where she was neither guest nor hostess. Her exact title was "assistant to the event planner" -- the event planner being her mother. At this particular party, it had been hard to focus on assisting with anything. She'd practically abandoned her responsibilities as she became fully enraptured with the cutest guy she'd ever seen in her life.
From the back of the reception hall she gazed at dark curls, sun-kissed skin, a perfectly chiseled jaw, and sculpted broad shoulders. He had the rare combination of dark hair and blue eyes, and she swore his eyelashes cast a shadow over his cheeks. He was new in the band, and he stood out like a palm tree in Alaska. Much younger than the rest of his bandmates, he looked like he didn't belong in the band-issued suit he wore. The only thing that seemed to fit him was the guitar he held.
A crackle came from her headset. She waited to hear her mother's voice, but there was nothing.
Odd, she thought. She wondered if Cute Guitar Guy liked girls who wore headsets. She felt so dorky sometimes.
When she glanced back at the stage, he was watching her. She didn't give her eyes a chance to introduce themselves to his, and quickly looked at theclipboard she held. Why was she so shy and weird when it came to cute boys? Now she looked antisocial, with a headset. A confident smile with lingering eye contact would've been nice. No, instead she had to be the nervous-looking chick with wire pinching the sides of her caramel-colored bangs.
"I can't find your mother anywhere." The agitated voice took Sara by surprise. Sara turned to face the mother of the bride. One look at her and Sara knew the woman had come with trouble. A vein spidered down her temple, slithering beneath the high collar of her taupe sequined gown, and her pointy eyebrows were all scrunched up.
"I am not watching a ten-thousand-dollar cake end up all over the soles of that man's Air Jordans." She threw a thumb over her shoulder. "I don't care who he is."
A crowd had gathered near the cake. In spite of Sara's five-two frame, she could still make out the tip of the bride's veil somewhere inside the fray. She had no idea what was going on, but she headed toward the crowd, the mother of the bride marching closely behind her.
"Mom, you there?" Sara spoke into the microphone on her headset. "Potential RM. I repeat, potential RM." They had all kinds of codes, and RM was code for "disaster." It actually stood for Regina Manfrankler. Sara and her mother had made up the code last year after the ambitious Regina Manfrankler had shown up at the wedding of her ex-boyfriend, equipped with three cans of red spray paint she'd earmarked for the entire wedding party.
Sara and Leah found her tagging the white bridal limo with THE GROOM HAS A SMALL -- They stopped her before she divulged the details, then covered her words with streamers and whipped cream. Sara had been pretty certain that what Regina had planned to say didn't involve the groom's bank account.
Sara made her way to the group, and as far as she could tell, everyone looked happy. A smile covered the bride's face as she shimmied to the music. The bridesmaids' yellow dresses swished with each step. So what could the problem be? It wasn't until Sara was up close that she noticed the potential RM. On his back, legs spinning around the floor like the top of a Black Hawk helicopter, was the tallest man Sara had ever seen in her fifteen years on earth. His name was Mickey Piper. In the world of basketball he was famous. He was also the best man at this wedding.
Sara didn't care if he had ten pairs of sneakers and a video game bearing his name. All she cared about was that he was break-dancing within a millimeter of the wedding cake. This wasn't any old cake. This was a delicacy adorned with rare edible flowers that had been delivered from the south of France. It was a pastry chef's masterpiece that boasted of real diamonds atop the bride and groom figurines. Sara and her mother had spent more time making sure this cake turned out okay than most girls spend picking out homecoming gowns. He must be stopped at once.
But how? This was not her kind of crisis. Her list of responsibilities included bustling the bride's dress and making sure each guest left with a wedding favor. This was clearly a crisis reserved for someone with more experience. She tried her mother again. Still nothing. She watched Mickey Piper for a moment. She knew it was twisted, but she couldn't help but wonder if the videographer was catching all this. How often did famous basketball players break-dance at weddings?
She'd witnessed her fair share of wedding idiots. When your mother is an event planner, brides gone wild and in-laws who hate each other are part of everyday life. But this was celebrity clientele here. She couldn't part the crowd, step inside, and grab one of his ankles. One nudge from his size 22 sneakers could blast her to a chandelier. This could end up in the tabloids if handled wrong. Her heart skipped a beat when the cake wobbled. She thought fast, then whipped around to face the mother of the bride.
"Give me one minute."
Sara felt nervous as she headed for the band, and not just because of Cute Guitar Guy. She had no idea if her little impromptu plan to save the cake was going to work. She'd worked with this cover band at many weddings and knew the lead singer, Kenny, well enough. He was cool for someone in his twenties, and he was really easy to work with. She stopped at the side of the stage and waved her arms. Kenny was too wrapped up in belting out Justin Timberlake to notice her. Then the guitarist's blue eyes landed on hers, and even in the midst of a crisis, she couldn't help but feel a buzz of warm, tingly excitement. Good thing it was a drum solo, because this gave Cute Guitar Guy the opportunity to help her.
"I need Kenny!" She had to shout because the music was so loud she thought he wouldn't hear her. He gave her a very nonchalant thumbs-up, as if he was used to helping out in the middle of songs. He edged in close to Kenny, made eye contact with the lead singer, then subtly nodded toward Sara.
Once she had Kenny's undivided attention, she mouthed, "Conga line now. Best man must lead."
Kenny closed in on his microphone. "Who's in the mood for a conga line?" His voice boomed over the crowd. There were a few howls from the dance floor. "Grab the waist of the closest person, and let's shake it up! I wanna see everyone on the dance floor! And I mean everyone! Where are the new Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox?" he sang. "I want the newlyweds in this conga line!"
She watched the bride scream, pull up her skirts, and jump to the front of the line. Her dress moved right along with the bridesmaids' as they began to dance around the room. "And where's the best man? Best man, I want you out there too," Kenny's voice sang through the microphone. "Everyone follow the best man."
Sara didn't have a chance to run for her life before Mickey Piper plucked her from the floor like a daisy and grabbed hold of her waist as he made her the head of the line. Her first thought was that she must look like a petrified leprechaun next to him. The man was seven foot two, which was a solid two feet taller than her minuscule frame.
"The conga line is the bomb!" Mickey shouted so loud she thought her eardrums would burst. When she'd suggested the conga line to Kenny, she never imagined that she'd be caught up in it. She tried to wiggle free, but his hands felt nailed to her waist. All she could do was move. Her biggest fear was that if she stopped, everyone would fall like dominoes behind her, and she'd end up like gum beneath his shoe.
She didn't dance. She knew it was just the conga line, but she'd been watching things like this from the sidelines for years -- not participating. Was she supposed to hop? Or did she trot? She took a few hops and felt her headset slip from the right side of her head. It dangled at an awkward angle over her forehead, and for a moment she was blind. She still held her clipboard. With one hand, she grappled with the headset, but the moving train behind her pushed hard, and she only managed to get it away from her face. Somewhere in trying to fix the headset, her bangs had gotten caught in the wire, and her hair stuck up like weeds. She was the Easter Bunny with a lopsided ear.
She caught a glimpse of the caterer's son, Blake. He was usually the only other person her age working at events, and he thrived on flirtatiously teasing her. One glimpse of his delighted smile, and she knew that he had enough material to make fun of her for the rest of the summer. She thought she might die.
Clearly, hopping was not how it was done. She tried kicking each foot from side to side. All she could do was pray the song ended soon. She wished she'd run for her life before this ball-throwing giant with a death grip got ahold of her. As they rounded the corner of the dance floor, her eyes landed on something truly nightmarish. Cute Guitar Guy's gaze was aimed directly at her. A sly smile covered his face, and he nodded when their eyes caught. Hopping around the room like a moronic square dancer with a floppy headset and bangs standing on end would go down as one of the most embarrassing moments of her life.
Well, at least the cake had been saved. She hoped that the next time Mickey Piper chose to do the helicopter, he did it on the dance floor, away from all the expensive stuff. She felt her bangs flopping around and wondered if the situation could get any worse.
The first thing she did when the song ended was straighten her headset and fix her hair. Then she got as far away from Mickey Piper as she possibly could. She couldn't make eye contact with anyone in the room for fear of dying of embarrassment. It was hard to believe that it had only been minutes ago that she'd been praying for Cute Guitar Guy to be around all summer. Now she sort of hoped she never saw him again. It was a good time to check in with her mother. Escape was welcome.
It would take a lot for her mother to ignore an RM alert. Sara imagined all kinds of catastrophes. Maybe that the filet mignon the bride had carefully selected had been confused by the caterer, and lobster covered each plate. Sara could still remember the bride explaining that her parents were deathly allergic to shellfish. The scent alone could trigger something called anaphylactic shock. Maybe Leah was desperately trying to come up with steaks in the last minutes before dinner, and that's why she hadn't answered. There had to be a major explanation.
Leah had been planning parties for most of Sara's life. However, before Sara's parents had divorced, her mother had worked part-time. She handled one wedding or party a month. During her mother's part-time days, word had spread around San Diego that Leah Sullivan was the best event planner in town. Some people even postponed their parties months -- sometimes years -- so they could get on Leah Sullivan's waiting list. It wasn't just that Leah had the magic touch that made everything beautiful. She also had a magnetic personality. She had a way of immediately making people feel not only relaxed around her, but important. She made her clients feel like everything was fun -- that life was one big celebration. She was, literally, the life of the party.
Shortly after Sara's parents divorced, her mother took on twice as much work. Her mom had been insanely busy, and Sara wanted to earn a little extra cash. Plus, her parents had told her that whatever she saved they would match on her sixteenth birthday to help her buy a car. So Sara had become her mother's assistant. When most clients met with Sara and her mother, their first response to Sara was skepticism. Sara was, after all, not yet even a junior in high school. However, as clients became immersed in the party-planning process, their skepticism evolved into respect and a sense of total trust in Sara's capabilities, especially when the parties they planned were for girls, because Sara could relate to them.
She found her mom in the kitchen, head tossed back, laughing hysterically at something the florist, Gene, had said. The caterers were gracefully arranging petit cuts of steak on hundreds of plates. Everything seemed fine.
Sara watched as Gene plucked a rose out of an extra centerpiece and tucked it behind her mother's right ear. It was nice to see that her mother was having so much fun with Gene, but couldn't she at least answer her headset when Sara called? A few minutes ago Sara had been so stressed she thought she'd be gray by her junior prom.
"Hi, honey." She was still smiling when she noticed Sara. "Isn't this rose beautiful?" The red rose looked sharp against Leah's pale blond hair and milky skin.
"Yeah, great. Why didn't you answer me?"
"Oh, my headset broke, so Gene decided to replace it with this flower." They both thought it was the funniest thing ever. Sara stared at them. That was it? A broken headset and some horsing around with the centerpieces? All the steaks were here and nothing was on fire?
Gene reached back to the centerpiece, plucked another rose from the middle, and placed it behind Sara's ear.
"Gorgeous! And now you two can communicate." His voice was a hair on the feminine side, and Gene always said things with enthusiasm.
Sara failed to see the humor. She pulled the rose from her head. She knew that her mother and Gene were becoming good friends. Just the other day they'd gone for massages together. While cute in an older man type of way, he was so metrosexual. Sara had no idea if Gene was gay or not, and after Brokeback Mountain, she knew that one could never tell.
A male florist, Gene lived for watching musicals onstage and baking gourmet cookies. He shared tips on self-tanning products and home decorating. However, Gene talked about his ex-wife as though she'd broken his heart.
Like Sara's mother, Gene also had a magnetic personality. He was easy to talk to, and he could find a way relate to anyone. Great conversations were one of Sara's favorite things, and every time she had a chance to chat with Gene, she felt like there was never enough time -- like they could discuss the most hated villains on reality shows for hours. His opinions about some of the divas on America's Next Top Model or Survivor were right on, in her opinion. Sara was kind of curious to know if Gene liked men or women -- or both. Not that it mattered, but she just couldn't help but feel a little nosy.
She caught a glimpse of Blake in the corner of the kitchen. He pointed to her, then pretended to hop like a rabbit before cracking up. He put so much gel in his hair that his rock-hard hairdo didn't budge when he hopped. She felt her cheeks turning red, and part of her wanted to hit him upside the head. However, she couldn't help but chuckle along with him. He looked pretty funny imitating her. As annoying as Blake could be, she knew that most of the time he was only trying to laugh with her, not at her. She turned back to her mother and Gene.
Sara was glad her mom had a friend. However, if Sara had been goofing off with Blake, she would've heard about it later. What was Gene still doing here, anyway? His duties had been completed long before the reception had begun. Didn't he have some orchids to water?
"Sara, can you remind the band that the father-of-the-bride toast is coming up?" Leah asked. "Gene's going to try to fix my headset. I should help."
Why it would take both of them to fix the headset was a mystery, but who was Sara to argue? "Sure."
Fortunately, the band had stuck with the schedule, and Kenny was already introducing the father of the bride. She quickly glanced around the room. The photographer clicked away. The videographer ducked in front of the head table, capturing the whole speech on his camcorder.
Since everyone was busy, she decided it might be a good opportunity to slip outside for one second and check her text messages. It was totally against the rules, and if her mom found out about it, she'd take away the cell phone. They'd had a few blowouts about text messaging. However, if her mom was goofing off with her new BFF, Gene, then why couldn't she steal one second to text Allie?
Tonight was a monumental evening for her best friend. Allie was on her second date with the captain of the varsity water polo team. During the school year Allie had hit the jackpot when her drawing-and-painting teacher had seated her across from Shane Corson for an entire semester. After sketching each other's portraits and exchanging tips on airbrushing, Shane had finally worked up the nerve to ask Allie out. Allie was really lucky that way. In art, Sara had been seated across from Gil Brunson, the president of the math club. She'd spent a good portion of the semester worrying as she'd shaded his portrait about hiding his pockmarks and making his braces look even.
Even though school had just ended and summer had begun, San Diego still suffered from June gloom, a dark and foggy chill that lasted until the end of the month. Sara shivered against the ocean air as she popped open her phone and clicked into her text inbox. The soft glow of a patio light revealed one new message. The number looked unfamiliar, but she was used to getting unfamiliar numbers on her phone. Her cell also served as a business line, so she was plagued with phone calls and text messages from vendors and clients, 24/7.
r we still on 4 2moro?
Sara's laughter filled the empty patio. Allie! She was so funny sometimes. Pretending to be Dakota London! She must've used Shane's phone to compose the message. Two weeks ago Allie had sent her a text asking for a get-out-of-rehab party, then signed it from Britney Spears. Now she was pretending to be Dakota London. Dakota was not only the biggest diva at their school, but one of Sara and Leah's biggest clients of the summer. Sara and Leah were in the midst of planning Dakota's late-summer sweet sixteen bash. The food alone cost more than most luxury cars, and the party came with a price tag comparable to a small beach house.
Rich and beautiful, Dakota had come to their school after being kicked out of the all-girls private school she'd attended for cheating on a test. She had crashed two Escalades without a license and had been arrested for joyriding in her grandfather's Bentley. She was a trendsetter and a serial heartbreaker.
When Sara had learned that they were signing on Dakota London as a client, she'd tried to warn her mom that Dakota London was drama. But her mom had wanted the commission from Dakota's expensive party. Leah had been dying to remodel her kitchen for the past two years, and this was just the financial boost she'd needed to do it. A conflict avoider by nature, Sara had stayed as far from the whole situation as she possibly could without being unhelpful. So why would Dakota be calling her?
As she thought of something funny to write back, she looked at the phone number again. It was a different area code from Shane's or Allie's. Maybe it really was Dakota? But why would she ask Sara if they were still on to meet tomorrow? The only times Sara had met with Dakota to go over her party, Leah had been present. And Sara wasn't aware of a meeting.
She was trying to figure it all out when an unfamiliar male voice startled her. She shoved the phone into the pocket of her blazer. She spun around, the back of her neck tingling.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," he said quietly. Facing her was Cute Guitar Guy. She'd forgotten that the band was taking a break. From where she stood, she could see his blue eyes.
"Uh -- it's okay." Maintain composure. He wore a leather jacket over an ironed white shirt and a tie. Something told her that he wouldn't touch a tie or an iron unless he was getting paid. He looked more like the ripped-jeans-and-Converse-All-Stars type of guy. She understood the feeling of being forced to dress appropriately for an event. Party-planning aside, she'd never wear the knee-length skirt and matching blazer unless she had to. Her outfit was about as cool as suits could get, but it was still a suit. Sara would much rather be in black skinny jeans and a comfy tank top.
"I was just saying that was a really good call."
She noticed dimples.
"Oh, thanks...but for what?" she asked.
"The conga line." He threw his guitar strap over his shoulder. "As entertaining as it was, someone had to stop Mickey Piper from taking out the wedding cake."
The nervous laughter that came from her throat didn't even sound like her. It sounded as though it were coming from someone else's body, and she wished she could shut it off. She felt her face grow warm. "I know. I just didn't think I'd be leading it. He was supposed to lead."
He shrugged. "It's cool. How many people can say they've done the conga line with Mickey Piper?"
"True." The way he said it made her feel like less of an idiot. He acted as though he'd never even noticed her flapping bangs or terrible moves. She actually felt kind of okay with the whole situation.
She was about to ask him if he was a permanent member in Kenny's cover band or if he was just filling in for the other guitarist when Gene's perky voice exploded into her ear. "Test-ing! Test-ing! Come in, Sara. Are you there?"
"Yes, hello, Gene. I'm here." Did he have to ruin the closest thing to a real conversation she'd ever shared with a hot guy?
The guitarist pointed to his watch, then to the reception hall. "I think I better go back in," he whispered.
She held up a finger. "One sec," she whispered. "Sorry." A gust of wind dusted the patio. She turned around so she could hear through her headset better.
Her mother's voice came in clear. "I guess we're all set, then, honey! Can you make sure the waiters have picked up all the empty glasses on the patio? I don't want my event looking like a mess. Thanks!"
"Of course. Already on it." Could she look any dorkier? She didn't even know the guy's name, and her mother had already come into the picture.
When she turned around, he was gone.
Copyright © 2008 by Whitney Lyles