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By Kathleen O'Reilly
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJESSICA BARNES studied the bride critically. Perfect. The warm, sparkling, spring afternoon was a rare thing in Chicago. White flowers covered the arbor, not one dead blossom in sight. The musicians hadn't missed a note. The slim branches from the weeping willow trees danced in the gentle breeze. Absolutely perfect.
Yup, there was nothing like seeing fairy-tale happiness to make you feel like crap. "Do you think she's put on weight since college?"
Safe on the far side of the garden, far away from the white, flower-strewn tent, the four friends shook their heads. It was a sad day for them all.
Mickey was the most practical. "It's the dress. All those ruffles. I don't know why women don't understand the illusion of substance that ruffles project." She shook her head and made a note in her PalmPilot.
Jessica considered her own well-stocked closet, completely ruffle-free. She didn't have the fashion sense of Dior, but she managed.
Beth sighed, her eyes still locked on the groom. A long, wistful sigh that she did so well. "He looks pretty good. Kenny never looked that good." Kenny was Beth's ex. An ex they'd never liked, but that was the sort of thing you didn't tell your friends. Subtle hints, yes. Life-damaging proclamations, no.
Cassandra, never one to confess weakness, studied her nails. Ten perfect ovals trimmed in Scarlet Nights. "He asked me out once, but I said 'no.' I was in my medical-students-only stage."
"Kenny asked you out?" Beth's wide blue eyes looked horrified.
Cassandra exhaled, her white sheath lifting gracefully. "No. Charles, the groom."
"She looks happy," Mickey put in, veering the subject away from No-Account Kenny.
Beth swallowed one bite of the wedding cake before licking the crumbs from her lip. "She's glowing."
That met with a long, jealous silence. They might as well just brand the lot of them with a scarlet L.
"Who needs love?" Cassandra asked, and then took a healthy drink of champagne.
Beth never took her eyes off the happy couple. "I do."
With a bit more violence than finesse, Jessica speared the olive in her drink. This was an argument they'd had many times. "No, Beth, you don't. You're a single woman with your independence, you can stay up as late as you want, let the laundry stack up, go to happy hour whenever you choose. What's not to love?" Just to prove her point, she swallowed the olive whole, a gesture her freshman-year fiance had abhorred. They had broken up soon after.
Beth defended herself. "Sometimes it's lonely."
"Get a cat," Mickey said.
Was a cat everyone's answer to life? Jessica just shook her head. "Oh, please, no. Aunt Charisse had ten cats when she died. They could not get the smell out of the carpet. Ever. Finally replaced the carpet, the padding, even deodorized the slab, and still they had to take ten K off the price."
Mickey raised her sunglasses and studied the bride once more. They'd all gone to college with Annie Summers, and now, six years after graduation, Annie was the first to get married. Second if you counted Beth's two-week marriage, but they usually didn't count Kenny. "I think white just isn't her color. She should have done something with a rose tone for her complexion, don't you think?"
"I heard they're going to the Caribbean for the honeymoon." Beth studied the hors d'oeuvre on the side table, finally settling for the curried shrimp.
"That's so cliché."
"I want to go to the Canadian Rockies on my honeymoon." Beth sounded as though she was reciting a Christmas list. Jessica wanted to shake her sometimes, tell her the world wasn't one big Disney movie, but she never did. Instead, they did their best to protect Beth from ever learning that Disney owned Miramax, too.
"Why don't you go by yourself?" Cassandra asked.
Beth froze, her blue eyes wide. "I could, couldn't I?"
Mickey shrugged. "Sure."
"I don't know. If I went now, where would I go on my honeymoon?" Beth sounded so certain. As if honeymoons were part of life's guarantees. Jessica was much more realistic. There were no guarantees, unless you did it yourself.
"What if you don't ever get married again?" Always the troublemaker, Cassandra wouldn't let it drop.
"Cassandra, don't scare the girl," Jessica said, working to avoid a scene.
"She doesn't need a man," Cassandra insisted.
Jessica just rolled her eyes at that. "Big words from a woman who always has a date on Saturday night."
After one regal sniff, Cassandra went on. "No, I'm serious. I could remain single for the rest of my life and be happy."
Mickey raised a hand, sans ring. "I could, too."
Beth stood firm. "Not me. I want to get married."
Jessica raised her glass. "To the solo state of mind. Junk food and chick flicks forever. A bachelorette pact, single forever."
Mickey and Cassandra clinked glasses. "Hear, hear."
By the look on her face, Beth knew she was defeated. After a long moment of silence, she joined in. "Screw 'em all."
Cassandra laughed, that throaty laugh she had perfected over the years. "Honey, life isn't long enough."
Sometimes marriage was overrated, but Jessica knew the truth. They had been single for so long that it was now easier to attack the institution of marriage than to face failure. Jessica hated failure.
"Marriage is nothing more than a woman's subjugation to a man's need for dominance. Ha. They try and dominate me, I'll pin the laser on them." Mickey worked at a research lab and had never yet met a man, or anyone for that matter, with a higher IQ.
Jessica speared another olive. "You know, there are some advantages to marriage. Actually, ever since the government tinkered with the tax structure, it doesn't cost as much as it used to. For instance, I would probably jump into the next tax bracket, assuming he's a white-collar professional; however, I'd get a credit of almost eight thousand. Not a great investment, but I suppose if he's willing to cook every now and then, it could be worth it." Jessica hated to cook.
"Or you could take all that money you'd put in extra taxes and buy your Porsche."
That earned a smile. Only 2.1 more years and then the Porsche would be hers. Unless she got the promotion to vice president at Hard-Wire Networks, a computer networking equipment manufacturer. Not likely, but possible. The raise would put her in Porsche-attainment status within nine months.
Excerpted from Pillow Talk by Kathleen O'Reilly Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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