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Alone, with Norah Jones whispering through the iPod,Laurel transformed a panel of fondant into a swatch of elegant,edible lace. She didn’t hear the music, used it more to fill the airthan as entertainment while she painstakingly pieced the completedpanel onto the second tier of four.
She stepped back to eye the results, to circle, to search for flaws.Vows’ clients expected perfect, and that’s exactly what she intendedto deliver. Satisfied, she nodded, and picked up a bottle of water tosip while she stretched her back.
“Two down, two to go.”
She glanced toward the board where she’d pinned various samplesof antique lace, and the final sketched design for the cake Fridayevening’s bride had approved.
She had three more designs to complete: two for Saturday, onefor Sunday—but that was nothing new. June at Vows, the weddinga nd event business she ran with her friends, was prime time.
In a handful of years, they’d turned an idea into a thriving enterprise.Sometimes just a little too thriving, she mused, which waswhy she was making fondant lace at nearly one in the morning.
It was a very good thing, she decided. She loved the work.
They all had their passions. Emma had the flowers, Mac the photography,Parker the details. And she had the cakes. And the pastries,she thought, and the chocolates. But the cakes stood as the crowningtouch.
She got back to it, began to roll out the next panel. Followinghabit, she’d clipped her sunny blond hair up and back out of herway. Cornstarch dusted the baker’s apron she wore over cottonpants and tee, and the slide-on kitchen shoes kept her feet as comfortableas possible after hours of standing. Her hands, strong fromyears of kneading, rolling, lifting, were capable and quick. As shebegan the next pattern, her sharp-featured, angular face set in seriouslines.
Perfection wasn’t simply a goal when it came to her art. ForIcing at Vows it was a necessity. The wedding cake was more thanbaking and piping, sugar paste and filling. Just as the wedding photosMac took were more than pictures, and the arrangements andbouquets Emma created more than flowers. The details and schedulesand wishes Parker put together were, in the end, bigger thanthe sum of their parts.
Together, the elements became a once-in-a-lifetime event, andthe celebration of the journey two people chose to make together.
Romantic, certainly, and Laurel believed in romance. In theory,anyway. More, she believed in symbols and celebrations. And in areally fabulous cake.
Her expression softened into pleasure as she completed thethird tier, and her deep blue eyes warmed as she glanced over tosee Parker hovering in the doorway.
“Why aren’t you in bed?”
“Details.” Parker circled a finger over her own head. “Couldn’tsettle. How long have you been at this tonight?”
“Awhile. I need to finish it so it can set overnight. Plus I havethe two Saturday cakes to assemble and decorate tomorrow.”
They knew each other well enough that it was understood ifLaurel said no, there’d be no off ense. And often, when deep in work,no was the answer.
“I love the design.” Parker, as Laurel had, circled the cake. “Thedelicacy of the white on white, the interest of the diff erent heightsof each tier—and the intricacy of each. They really do look like differentpanels of lace. Old-fashioned, vintage, that’s our bride’s theme.You’ve nailed it with this.”
“We’re going to do pale blue ribbon around the pedestal,” Laurelsaid as she started on the next panel. “And Emma’s going to scatterwhite rose petals at the base. It’s going to be a winner.”
“The bride’s been good to work with.”
Comfortable in her pajamas, her long brown hair loose ratherthan in its work mode of sleek tail or smooth chignon, Parker puton the kettle for tea. One of the perks of running the business outof her home, and of having Laurel living there—with Emma andParker right on the estate as well—were these late-night visits.
“She knows her mind,” Laurel commented, choosing a tool toscallop the edges of the panel. “But she’s open to suggestion, and sofar hasn’t been insane. If she makes it through the next twenty-fourthat way, she’ll definitely earn Vows’ coveted Good Bride status.”
“They looked happy and relaxed tonight at rehearsal, and that’sa good sign.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Laurel continued the pattern with precisely placedeyelets and dots. “So, again, why aren’t you in bed?”
Parker sighed as she heated a little teapot. “I think I was havinga moment. I was unwinding with a glass of wine out on my terrace.I could see Mac’s place, and Emma’s. The lights were on inboth houses, and I could smell the gardens. It was so quiet, sopretty. The lights went off —Emma’s first, and a little while after,Mac’s. I thought how we’re planning Mac’s wedding, and thatEmma just got engaged. And all the times we played Wedding Day,the four of us, when we were kids. Now it’s real. I sat there in thequiet and the dark, and found myself wishing my parents could behere to see it. To see what we’ve done here, and who we are now.I got stuck.” She paused to measure out tea. “Between being sadthey’re gone and being happy because I know they’d be proud ofme. Of us.”
“I think about them a lot. We all do.” Laurel continued to work.“Because they were such an essential part of our lives, and becausethere are so many memories of them here. So I know what youmean by being stuck.”
“They’d get a kick out of Mac and Carter, out of Emma andJack, wouldn’t they?”
“Yeah, they would. And what we’ve done here, Parker? It rocks.They’d get a kick out of that, too.”
“I’m lucky you were up working.” Parker poured hot waterinto the pot. “You’ve settled me down.”
“Here to serve. I’ll tell you who else is lucky, and that’s Friday’sbride. Because this cake?” She blew stray hair out of her eyes as shenodded smugly. “It kicks major ass. And when I do the crown,angels will weep with joy.”
Parker set the pot aside to steep. “Really, Laurel, you need totake more pride in your work.”
Laurel grinned. “Screw the tea. I’m nearly done here. Pour mea glass of wine.”
In the morning, after a solid six hours’ sleep, Laurel got ina quick session at the gym before dressing for the workday. She’dbe chained in her kitchen for the bulk of it, but before that routinebegan, there was the summit meeting that prefaced every event.
Laurel dashed downstairs from her third-floor wing to the mainlevel of the sprawling house, and back to the family kitchen whereMrs. Grady was putting a fruit platter together.
“Morning, Mrs. G.”
Mrs. Grady arched her eyebrows. “You look feisty.”
“Feel feisty. Feel righteous.” Laurel fisted both hands, flexed hermuscles. “Want coff ee. Much.”
“Parker’s taken the coff ee up already. You can take this fruit, andthe pastries. Eat some of that fruit. A day shouldn’t start with aDanish.”
“Yes, ma’am. Anyone else here yet?”
“Not yet, but I saw Jack’s truck leave a bit ago, and I expectCarter will be along giving me the puppy eyes in hopes of a decentbreakfast.”
“I’ll get out of the way.” Laurel grabbed the platters, balancingthem with the expertise of the waitress she’d been once upona time.
She carried them up to the library, which now served as Vows’conference room. Parker sat at the big table, with the coff ee serviceon the breakfront. Her BlackBerry, as always, remained at easyreach. The sleek ponytail left her face unframed, and the crispwhite shirt transmitted business mode as she sipped coff ee andstudied data on her laptop with midnight blue eyes Laurel knewmissed nothing.
“Provisions,” Laurel announced. She set the trays down, thentucked her chin-length swing of hair behind her ears before sheobeyed Mrs. Grady and fixed herself a little bowl of berries. “Missedyou in the gym this morning. What time did you get up?”
“Six, which was a good thing, since Saturday afternoon’s bridecalled just after seven. Her father tripped over the cat and may havebroken his nose.”
“She’s worried about him, but nearly equally worried abouthow he’s going to look for the wedding, and in the photographs.I’m going to call the makeup artist to see what she thinks can bedone.”
“Sorry about the FOB’s bad luck, but if that’s the biggest problemthis weekend, we’re in good shape.”
Parker shot out a finger. “Don’t jinx it.”
Mac strolled in, long and lean in jeans and a black T-shirt.“Hello, pals of mine.”
Laurel squinted at her friend’s easy smile and slumberous greeneyes. “You had morning sex.”
“I had stupendous morning sex, thank you.” Mac poured herselfcoff ee, grabbed a muffin. “And you?”
With a laugh, Mac dropped down in her chair, stretched outher legs. “I’ll take my morning exercise over your treadmill andBowflex.”
“Mean, nasty bitch,” Laurel said and popped a raspberry.
“I love summer when the love of my life doesn’t have to get upand out early to enlighten young minds.” She opened her own laptop.“Now I’m primed, in all possible ways, for business.”
“Saturday afternoon’s FOB may have broken his nose,” Parkertold her.
“Bummer.” Mac’s brow creased. “I can do a lot with Photoshopif they want me to—but it’s kind of a cheat. What is, is—and itmakes an amusing memory. In my opinion.”
“We’ll see what the bride’s opinion is once he gets back fromthe doctor.” Parker glanced over as Emma rushed in.
“I’m not late. There are twenty seconds left.” Black curls bouncing,she scooted to the coff ee station. “I fell back to sleep. After.”
“Oh, I hate you, too,” Laurel muttered. “We need a new rule.No bragging about sex at business meetings when half of us aren’tgetting any.”
“Seconded,” Parker said immediately.
“Aww.” Laughing, Emma scooped some fruit into a bowl.
“Saturday afternoon’s FOB may have a broken nose.”
“Aww,” Emma repeated, with genuine concern at Mac’sannouncement.
“We’ll deal with it when we have more details, but however itturns out, it really falls to Mac and me. I’ll keep you updated,”Parker said to Mac. “Tonight’s event. All out-of-town attendants,relatives, and guests have arrived. The bride, the MOB, and theattendants are due here at three for hair and makeup. The MOGhas her own salon date and is due by four, with the FOG. FOB willarrive with his daughter. We’ll keep him happy and occupied untilit’s time for the formal shots that include him. Mac?”
“The bride’s dress is a beaut. Vintage romance. I’ll be playingthat up.”
As Mac outlined her plans and timetable, Laurel rose for a secondcup of coff ee. She made notes here and there, continued to doso when Emma took over. As the bulk of Laurel’s job was complete,she’d fill in when and where she was needed.
It was a routine they’d perfected since Vows had gone fromconcept to reality.
“Laurel,” Parker said.
“The cake’s finished—and a wowzer. It’s heavy, so I’ll need helpfrom the subs transferring it to reception, but the design doesn’trequire any on-site assembly. I’ll need you to do the ribbon andwhite rose petals, Emma, once it’s transferred, but that’s it until it’stime to serve. They opted against a groom’s cake, and went for aselection of mini pastries and heart-shaped chocolates. They’redone, too, and we’ll serve them on white china lined with lace doiliesto mirror the design of the cake. The cake table linen is paleblue, eyelet lace. Cake knife and server, provided by the B and G.They were her grandmother’s so we’ll keep our eye on them.
“I’m going to be working on Saturday’s cakes most of today,but should be freed up by four if anyone needs me. During the lastset, the subs will put leftover cake in the take-away boxes and tiethem with blue ribbon we’ve had engraved with the B and G’snames, and the date. Same goes if there are any leftover chocolatesor pastries. Mac, I’d like a picture of the cake for my files. I haven’tdone this design before.”
“And Emma, I need the flowers for Saturday night’s cake. Canyou drop them off to me when you come to dress today’s event?”
“On the personal front?” Mac lifted a hand for attention. “Noone’s mentioned that my mother’s latest wedding is tomorrow, inItaly. Which is, thankfully, many, many miles away from our happyhome here in Greenwich, Connecticut. I got a call from her justafter five this morning, as Linda doesn’t get the concept of timezones—and, well, let’s face it, doesn’t give a shit anyway.”
“Why didn’t you just let it ring?” Laurel demanded, even asEmma reached over to rub Mac’s leg in sympathy.
“Because she’d just keep calling back—and I’m trying to dealwith her. On my terms for a change.” Mac raked her fingersthrough the bold red of her gamine cap of hair. “There were, asexpected, tears and recriminations, as she’s decided she wants methere. As opposed to a week ago, when she didn’t. Since I have nointention of hopping on a plane, particularly when I have an eventtonight, two tomorrow, and another on Sunday, to see her get marriedfor the fourth time, she’s not speaking to me.”
“If only it would last.”
“Laurel,” Parker murmured.
“I mean it. You got to give her a piece of your mind,” she remindedParker. “I didn’t. I can only let it fester.”
“Which I appreciate,” Mac said. “Sincerely. But as you can see,I’m not in a funk, I’m not swimming in guilt or even marginallypissed off . I think there’s an advantage to finding a guy who’s sensible,loving, and just really solid. An advantage over and abovereally terrific morning sex. Every one of you has been on my sidewhen I’ve had to deal with Linda, you’ve tried to help me throughher demands and basic insanity. I guess Carter just helped tip thescales, and now I can deal with it. I wanted to tell you.”
“I’d have morning sex with him myself, just for that.”
“Hands off , McBane. But I appreciate the sentiment. So.” Sherose. “I want to get some work done before I need to focus on today’sevent. I’ll swing by and get some shots of the cake.”
“Hang on, I’ll go with you.” Emma pushed up. “I’ll be back withthe team shortly—and I’ll drop the flowers off for you, Laurel.”
When they’d gone, Laurel sat another moment. “She reallymeant it.”
“Yes, she really did.”
“And she’s right.” Laurel took a last moment to sit back and relaxwith her coff ee. “Carter’s the one who turned the key in the lock.I wonder what it’s like to have a man who can do that, can help thatway without pushing. Who can love you that way. I guess when itcomes down to it, I envy her that even more than the sex.”
Shrugging, Laurel rose. “I’d better get to work.”
Laurel didn’t have time to think about men over the nextcouple of days. She didn’t have the time or the energy to thinkabout love and romance. She might have been neck-deep in wed-dings, but that was business—and the business of weddings demandedfocus and precision.
Her Antique Lace cake, which had taken her nearly three days tocreate, had its moment in the spotlight—before being disassembledand devoured. Saturday afternoon featured her whimsical PastelPetals with its hundreds of embossed, gum-paste rose petals, and Saturdayevening her Rose Garden, where tiers of bold red roses layeredwith tiers of vanilla-bean cake with silky buttercream frosting.
For Sunday afternoon’s smaller, more casual event, the bridehad chosen Summer Berries. Laurel had done the baking, the filling,the assembly, and the basket-weave frosting. Now, even as thebride and groom exchanged vows on the terrace outside, Laurelcompleted the project by arranging the fresh fruit and mint leaveson the tiers.
Behind her, the subs completed table decorations for the weddingbrunch. She wore a baker’s apron over a suit nearly the samecolor as the raspberries she selected.
Stepping back, she studied the lines and balance, then chose abunch of champagne grapes to drape over a tier.
Her eyebrows drew together as she grouped stemmed cherries.Interruptions while she worked were common—but that didn’tmean she had to like them. Added to it, she hadn’t expected Parker’sbrother to drop by during an event.
Then again, she reminded herself, he came and went as hepleased.
But when she spotted his hand reaching for one of her containers,she slapped it smartly away.
“Hands off .”
“Like you’re going to miss a couple blackberries.”
“I don’t know where your hands have been.” She set a trio ofmint leaves, and didn’t bother—yet—to spare him a glance. “Whatdo you want? We’re working.”
“Me, too. More or less. Lawyer capacity. I had some paperworkto drop off .”
He handled all their legal dealings, both individually and as abusiness. She knew, very well, he put in long hours on their behalf,and often on his own time. But if she didn’t jab at him, she’d breaklong-standing tradition.
“And timed it so you could mooch from catering.”
“There ought to be some perks. Brunch deal?”
She gave in and turned. His choice of jeans and a T-shirt didn’tmake him less of an Ivy League lawyer—not to her mind. DelaneyBrown of the Connecticut Browns, she thought. Tall, appealinglyrangy, his dense brown hair just a smidgen longer than lawyerly fashionmight dictate.
Did he do that on purpose? She imagined so, as he was a manwho always had a plan. He shared those deep, midnight blue eyeswith Parker, but though she’d known him all her life, she couldrarely read what was behind them.
He was, in her opinion, too handsome for his own good, toosmooth for anyone else’s. He was also unflinchingly loyal, quietlygenerous—and annoyingly overprotective.
He smiled at her now, quick and easy with a disarming flash ofhumor she imagined served as a lethal weapon in court. Or thebedroom.
“Cold poached salmon, mini chicken florentine, grilled summervegetables, potato pancakes, a variety of quiches, caviar withfull accompaniment, assorted pastries and breads, along with a fruitand cheese display, followed by the poppy-seed cake with orangemarmalade filling and Grand Marnier buttercream frosting, toppedwith fresh fruit.”
“Sign me up.”
“I expect you can sweet-talk the caterers,” she said. She rolledher shoulders, circled her head on her neck as she chose the nextberries.
“The basket weave’s a killer on the neck and shoulders.”
His hands lifted, then retreated to his pockets. “Are Jack andCarter around?”
“Somewhere. I haven’t seen them today.”
“Maybe I’ll go hunt them down.”
But he wandered across the room to the windows and lookeddown at the flower-decked terrace, the white slippered chairs, thepretty bride turned toward the smiling groom.
“They’re doing the ring thing,” Del called out.
“So Parker just told me.” Laurel tapped her headset. “I’m set.Emma, the cake’s ready for you.”
She balanced the top layer with an off set stem loaded withblackberries. “Five-minute warning,” she announced, and beganloading her bin with the remaining fruit. “Let’s get the champagnepoured, the Bloody Marys and mimosas mixed. Light the candles,please.” She started to lift the bin, but Del beat her to it.
“I’ll carry it.”
She shrugged, and moved over to hit the switch for the backgroundmusic that would play until the orchestra took over.
They started down the back stairs, passing uniformed waitstaffon their way up with hors d’oeuvres for the brief cocktail mixerdesigned to keep guests happy while Mac took the formals of thebride and groom, the wedding party and family.
She swung into her kitchen where the caterers ran full steam.Used to the chaos, Laurel slid through, got a small bowl andscooped out fruit. She passed it to Del.
“Just stay out of the way. Yes, they’re ready,” she said to Parkerthrough the headset. “Yeah, in thirty. In place.” She glanced over atthe caterers. “On schedule. Oh, Del’s here. Uh-huh.”
Leaning on the counter and eating berries, he watched her asshe stripped off her apron. “Okay, heading out now.”
Del pushed off the counter to follow her as she headed throughthe mudroom that would soon be transformed into her extracooler and storage area. She pulled the clip out of her hair, tossedit aside, and shook her hair into place as she stepped outside.
“Where are we going?”
“I’m going to help escort guests inside. You’re going away,somewhere.”
“I like it here.”
It was her turn to smile. “Parker said to get rid of you until it’stime to clean up. Go find your little friends, Del, and if you’re goodboys you’ll be fed later.”
“Fine, but if I get roped into cleanup, I want some of thatcake.”
They separated, him strolling toward the remodeled pool housethat served as Mac’s studio and home, her striding toward the terrace,where the bride and groom exchanged their first marriedkiss.
Laurel glanced back once—just once. She’d known him all herlife—that was fate, she supposed. But it was her own fault, and herown problem, that she’d been in love with him nearly as long.
She allowed herself one sigh before fixing a bright, professionalsmile on her face to lend a hand herding the celebrants intoReception. Chapter 2
Long after the last guest departed and the caterers loadedup, Laurel stretched out on the sofa of the family parlor with awell-deserved glass of wine.
She wasn’t sure where the men might be—back to their denswith a six-pack maybe—but it was nice, very nice, to unwind withjust the women, and the relative quiet.
“Damn good weekend.” Mac lifted her glass in toast. “Fourrehearsals, four events. Not a single hitch in any of them. Not evena blip of a hitch. That’s a record.”
“The cake was amazing,” Emma added.
“You had a forkful,” Laurel pointed out.
“An amazing forkful. Plus it was just sweet today, the way thegroom’s little boy stood as best man. He was so cute. It got meweepy.”
“They’re going to make a nice family.” Parker sat, eyes closed,BlackBerry on her lap. “You watch some of the second-time-arounds with kids, and think: Ho boy, rough sailing coming up. Butthis? You can just see she and the kid are nuts for each other. It wassweet.”
“I got some killer pictures. And the cake was awesome,” Macadded. “Maybe I should go for the poppy seed for mine.”
To ease the cramping, Laurel curled and uncurled her toes.
“Last week you wanted the Italian cream.”
“Maybe I should have cake samplers. Small versions of severalkinds, diff erent designs. It would be a culinary orgy, plus amazingphotography.”
Laurel cocked a finger. “Die, Mackensie. Die.”
“You should stick with the Italian cream. It’s your favorite.”
Mac pursed her lips as she nodded at Emma. “You’re right. Andit is all about me. What are you leaning toward, cakewise?”
“I can’t even think about it. I’m still getting used to being engaged.”Emma studied the diamond on her finger with an undeniablysmug smile. “Plus, once I shift into wedding plans and details, Ifully expect to succumb to mania. So we should put that off as longas possible.”
“Yes, please.” Laurel sighed her agreement.
“You need the dress first anyway.” Parker kept her eyes closed.“The dress always comes first.”
“Now you’ve done it,” Laurel muttered.
“I’ve barely thought about it. More than a thousand times,”Emma added. “I’ve hardly looked at more than half a million pictures.I’m going for princess. Miles and miles of skirt. Probably anoff -the-shoulder bodice, maybe a sweetheart neckline since I dohave exceptional breasts.”
“It’s true, you do,” Mac agreed.
“Absolutely nothing simple. Lavish is my byword. I want a tiara—and a train.” Dark eyes glowed at the thought. “And since we’resqueezing it into next May, I’m going to design myself an incredible,and yes, lavish, bouquet. Pastels, I think. Maybe. Probably. Romantic,heartbreaking pastels.”
“But she can’t even think about it,” Laurel put in.
“All of you in soft colors,” Emma went on, unfazed. “A gardenof my friends.” She let out a sigh of her own, long and dreamy.“And when Jack sees me, he’ll lose his breath. In that one moment,you know, when we look at each other, the world’s going to stopfor us. Just for a minute, one incredible minute.”
From her position on the floor, she rested her head againstParker’s leg. “We didn’t really know, all those times we playedWedding Day when we were kids. We didn’t really know what thatone incredible moment meant. We’re so lucky we get to see it asoften as we do.”
“Best job ever,” Mac murmured.
“Best job ever because we are.” Laurel sat up enough to toast.“We put it together so people can have that one incredible moment.You’ll have yours, Em—orchestrated down to the last detailby Parker, surrounded with flowers you’ve arranged yourself, capturedin a photograph by Mac. And celebrated with a cake I’ll createjust for you. A lavish one. Guaranteed.”
“Aww.” Emma’s dark eyes filled. “As much as I love Jack—andboy, do I ever—I couldn’t be as happy as I am now without allof you.”
Mac handed Emma a tissue. “I’m still first. I want a cake that’sjust for me,” she said to Laurel. “If she gets one, so do I.”
“I can put little cameras and tripods around the tiers.”
“And little stacks of books for Carter?” Mac laughed. “Silly,but apt.”
“It follows the theme of your engagement shots.” Emma driedher eyes. “I love the way you set those up, with you and Carter onthe couch, your legs all tangled together, him with a book on hislap, you looking like you’ve just lowered your camera after takinghis picture. Both of you just grinning at each other. Which leads meto ask you about our engagement portrait. When, where, how?”
“Easy. You and Jack in bed, naked.”Emma shot out a foot to give Mac a light kick. “Stop.”
“Also apt,” was Laurel’s opinion.
“We do more than have sex!”
“You certainly do. Y ou think about having sex.” Parker openedone eye.
“We have a very layered relationship,” Emma insisted. “Whichincludes lots of sex. But seriously—”
“I’ve got a few things in mind. We should look at our schedulesand set something up.”
“Sure. Parks must have both our schedules on her CrackBerry.”Mac reached toward it.
Parker opened both eyes, aimed a smoldering warning stare.“Touch it and die.”
“Jesus. Let’s go check my book at the studio. We should probablyround up the guys anyway—and we’d have to have Jack clearthe time.”
“Where are the guys?” Laurel wondered.
“Down with Mrs. G,” Emma told her. “Eating pizza and playingpoker—or that was the plan.”
“Nobody asked us for pizza and poker.” Laurel managed a horizontalshrug as eyes turned to her. “Okay, no, I don’t want pizzaand poker because I like it right here. But still.”
“Anyway.” Mac pushed to her feet. “Rounding up under thecircumstances might take some time. Let’s just plant the seed, thengo figure the schedule.”
“That’s a plan. Good job, girls,” Emma said as she stood.As they left, Laurel stretched. “I need a massage. We should havean in-house masseur named Sven. Or Raoul.”
“I’ll put that on the list. Meanwhile, you could call Serenity andbook one.”
“But if we had Sven—I think Sven is better than Raoul—Icould have one right now, then I’d slide bonelessly into bed andsleep. How many days until vacation?”
“You say that now, but once we’re free and get to the Hamptons,you’ll still have that BlackBerry attached to your hand.”
“I can give it up anytime I want.”
Laurel answered Parker’s smile. “You’ll buy a waterproof bag forit, so you can swim with it.”
“They should make them waterproof. We must have thetechnology.”
“Well, I’m going to leave you and your one true love alone, gosoak in a hot tub, and dream of Sven.” Laurel rolled off the couch.“It’s good seeing Emma and Mac so happy, isn’t it?”
“See you in the morning.”
The hot bath worked wonders, but left her wide awakeinstead of relaxed and sleepy. Rather than spending an hour tryingto will herself to sleep, Laurel turned on the TV in her sitting roomfor company, then sat down at her computer to check her week’sschedule. She browsed recipes—as much an addiction for her asthe BlackBerry was to Parker—and found a couple worth bookmarkingto tweak and personalize later.
Still restless, she settled down in her favorite chair with hersketch pad. The chair had been Parker’s mother’s, and always madeLaurel feel cozy and safe. She sat cross-legged on the deep cushion,the pad across her lap, and thought of Mac. Of Mac and Carter. OfMac in the fabulous wedding dress she’d chosen—or that Parkerhad found for her.
Clean, sleek lines, she mused, that so suited Mac’s long, lean body.Not a lot of fuss, and just a touch of flirt. She sketched a cake thatmirrored the idea—classic and simple. And immediately rejected it.
Clean lines for the gown, yes, but Mac was also about color andflash, about the unique and the bold. And that, she realized, wasone of the reasons Carter adored her.
So bold. Colorful fall wedding. Square tiers rather than themore traditional round, with the buttercream frosting Mac favored.Tinted. Yes, yes. Dusky gold then covered with fall flowers—she’dmake them oversized with wide, detailed petals—in russet andburnt orange, loden.
Color, texture, shape, to appeal to the photographer’s eye, andromantic enough for any bride. Crowned with a bouquet, trailingribbons in dark gold. Touches of white in some piping, to bringout all the color.
Mac’s Fall, she thought, smiling as she added details. The perfectname for it—for the season, and for the way her friend had trippedinto love.
Laurel held the sketch out to arm’s length, then grinned insatisfaction.
“I am damn good. And now I’m hungry.”
She rose to prop the open sketchbook against a lamp. Firstchance, she decided, she’d show it to Mac for the bride’s opinion.But if she knew Mac—and she did—this was going to get a big,happy woo!
She deserved a snack—maybe a slice of cold pizza if there wasany left. Which she’d regret in the morning, she told herself as shestarted out, but it couldn’t be helped.
She was awake and she was hungry. One of the perks of runningyour own business and your own life was being able to indulgeyourself from time to time.
She moved through the dark and the quiet, guided by herknowledge of the house and the stream of moonlight through thewindows. She crossed out of her wing, started down the stairs asshe talked herself out of cold pizza and into a healthier choice offresh fruit and herbal tea.
She needed to be up early to fit in a workout before Mondaymorning baking. Then she had three couples coming in that afternoonfor tastings, so she’d need to prep for that, and get cleaned up.
An evening meeting, full staff , with a client to determine basicdetails of a winter wedding, then she had the rest of the night freeto do what needed to be done—or what suited her fancy.
Thank God she’d initiated a dating moratorium so there was noworry about getting dressed to go out—and what to wear whenshe did—making conversation, and deciding whether or not shewas inclined to have sex.
Life was easier, she thought as she turned at the base of thestairs. It was easier, simpler, and just less fraught when you took datingand sex off the menu.
She rammed straight into a solid object—male-shaped—thentumbled backward. Cursing, she flailed out to save herself. Theback of her hand smacked sharply against flesh—causing anothercurse that wasn’t hers. As she went down, she grabbed a fistful ofmaterial. She heard it rip as the male-shaped solid object fell ontop of her.
Winded, her head ringing where it thudded against the stairtread, she lay limp as a rag. Even dazed in the dark, she recognizedDel by his shape, his scent.
“Jesus. Laurel? Damn it. Are you hurt?”
She drew in a breath, constricted by his weight—and maybe bythe fact that a certain area of that weight was pressed very intimatelybetween her legs. Why the hell had she been thinking aboutsex? Or the lack thereof?
“Get off me,” she managed.
“Working on it. Are you okay? I didn’t see you.” He pushed uppartway so their eyes met in that blue dust moonlight. “Ouch.”
Because his movement increased the pressure—center to center—something besides her head began to throb. “Off . Me. Now.”“Okay, okay. I lost my balance—plus you grabbed my shirt andtook me down with you. I tried to catch you. Hold on, let me getthe light.”
She stayed just where she was, waiting to get her breath back,waiting for things to stop throbbing. When he flicked on the foyerlight, she shut her eyes against the glare.
“Ah,” he said and cleared his throat.
She lay sprawled on the steps, legs spread, wearing a thin whitetank and a pair of red boxers. Her toenails were sizzling pink. Hedecided concentrating on her toes was a better idea than her legs,or the way the tank fit, or . . . anything else.
“Let me help you up.” And into a really long, thick robe.She waved him off , half sat up to rub at the back of her head.“Damn it, Del, what are you doing sneaking around the house?”
“I wasn’t sneaking. I was walking. Why were you sneaking?”
“I wasn’t— Jesus. I live here.”
“I used to,” he muttered. “You tore my shirt.”
“You fractured my skull.”
Annoyance dissolved instantly into concern. “Did I really hurtyou? Let me see.”
Before she could move, he crouched and reached around to feelthe back of her head. “You went down pretty hard. It’s not bleeding.”
“Ouch!” At least the fresh ringing took her mind off the tornshirt, and the muscle beneath it. “Stop poking.”
“We should get you some ice.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” Stirred up, no question, she thought, andwishing he didn’t look so tousled, roughed-up, and ridiculouslysexy. “What the hell are you doing here? It’s the middle of thenight.”
“It’s barely midnight, which, despite the term, isn’t the middleof the night.”
He stared straight into her eyes, looking, she imagined, for signsof shock or trauma. Any second he’d take her damn pulse.
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
“Mrs. G and I were hanging out. There was beer involved.Enough beer I decided I’d just . . .” He pointed up. “I was goingto crash in one of the guest rooms rather than drive home with abuzz on.”
She couldn’t argue with him for being sensible—particularlysince he was always sensible. “Then . . .” She mimicked him, andpointed up.
“Stand up so I can make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m not the one with a buzz on.”
“No, you’re the one with a fractured skull. Come on.” Hesolved the matter by hooking his hands under her arms and liftingher so she stood on the step above him with their faces nearlylevel.
“I don’t see any X’s in your eyes, no birds circling over yourhead.”
He gave her that smile. “I heard a couple birds chirping whenyou backhanded me.”
She couldn’t stop her lips from twitching even as she scowled.“If I’d known it was you, I’d’ve put more behind it.”
“There’s my girl.”
And wasn’t that exactly how he thought of her? she thoughtwith a slippery mix of temper and disappointment. Just one of hisgirls.
“Go, sleep off your buzz, and no more sneaking around.”
“Where are you going?” he asked as she walked away.
“Where I please.”
She usually did, he mused, and it was one of the most appealingthings about her. Unless you considered how her ass looked in shortred boxers.
Which he wasn’t. Exactly. He was just making sure she wassteady on her feet. And on her really excellent legs.
Deliberately, he turned away and walked up the stairs to thethird floor. He turned toward Parker’s wing, and opened the doorto the room that had been his as a child, a boy, a young man.
It wasn’t the same. He didn’t expect it to be or want it to be. Ifthings didn’t change, they became stagnant and stale. The walls, asoft, foggy green now, displayed clever paintings in simple framesrather than the sports posters of his youth. The bed, a gorgeous oldfour-poster, had been his grandmother’s. Continuity, he thought,wasn’t the same as stagnation.
He pulled change and keys out of his pocket to toss them on thedish set on the bureau, then caught sight of himself in the mirror.
His shirt was ripped at the shoulder, his hair disordered, and ifhe wasn’t mistaken, he could see the faint mark where Laurel’sknuckles had connected with his cheekbone.
She’d always been tough, he thought as he toed off his shoes.Tough, strong, and damn near fearless. Most women would’vescreamed, wouldn’t they? But not Laurel—she fought. Push her,she pushed back. Harder.
He had to admire that.
Her body had surprised him. He could admit it, he told himselfas he stripped off the torn T-shirt. Not that he didn’t know herbody. He’d hugged her countless times over the years. But hugginga female friend was an entirely diff erent matter than lying on topof a woman in the dark.
Entirely diff erent.
And something it was best not to dwell on.
He stripped off the rest of his clothes, then folded down thequilt—the work of his great-grandmother in this case. He set theold-fashioned wind-up alarm clock beside the bed, then switchedoff the light.
When he closed his eyes, the image of Laurel lying on the stairspopped into his head—lodged there. He rolled over, thought aboutthe appointments he had the next day. And saw her walking awayin those brief red boxers.
A man was entitled to dwell on whatever he wanted to dwellon when he was alone in the dark.
In their Monday morning habit, Laurel and Parker hittheir home gym at nearly the same moment. Parker went for yoga,Laurel for cardio. Since both took the routine seriously, there waslittle conversation.
As Laurel approached her third mile, Parker switched to pilates—and Mac trudged in to give the Bowflex her usual sneer.
Amused, Laurel throttled back to cool down. Mac’s conversionto regular workouts stemmed from her determination to have happeningarms and shoulders in her strapless wedding dress.
“Looking good, Elliot,” she called out as she grabbed a towel.Mac just curled her lip.
Laurel unrolled a mat to stretch while Parker gave Mac sometips on form. By the time she moved on to free weights, Parker wasshoving Mac to the elliptical.
“I don’t wanna.”
“Woman does not rule by resistance training alone. Fifteen cardio,fifteen stretching. Laurel, where did you get that bruise?”
“On your shoulder.” Crossing over, Parker fluttered her fingeron the bruise exposed by Laurel’s racer-back tank.
“Oh, I tripped under your brother.”
“He was wandering around in the dark when I went down forsome tea—which ended up being cold pizza and a soda. He raninto me and knocked me down.”
“Why was he wandering around in the dark?”
“My question exactly. Beers and Mrs. G. He crashed in one ofthe guest rooms.”
“I didn’t know he was here.”
“Still here,” Mac said. “His car’s out front.”
“I’ll see if he’s up. Fifteen minutes, Mac.”
“Nag. When do I get my endorphins?” Mac demanded of Laurel.“How will I know when I do?”
“How do you know when you orgasm?”
“Yeah?” Mac brightened. “It’s like that?”
“Sadly no, but the principle of ‘you know when you get there’is the same. Are you eating breakfast here?”
“I’m thinking about it. I think I’ll have earned it. Plus, if I callCarter to come over, he can talk Mrs. G into French toast.”
“Do that then. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
“Just an idea.”
It was just after seven when Laurel, dressed for the day, sketchbookin hand, stepped into the family kitchen.
She’d assumed Del would be gone, but there he was, leaningagainst the counter with a steaming mug of coff ee. In a near mirrorimage of the posture, Carter Maguire leaned on the oppositecounter.
Still, they were so diff erent. Del, even in the torn shirt and jeans,projected a kind of masculine elegance, while Carter exuded adisarming sweetness. Not sugary, she thought. She’d have hatedthat—but an innate sort of niceness.
And despite Del’s fumble in the night, he was agile, athletic,while Carter tended toward the klutzy.
Still, they were both so damn cute.
Obviously, the sturdy Mrs. Grady wasn’t immune. She workedat the stove—French toast winning the day—her eyes bright, hercheeks a little flushed. Happy to have the boys around, Laurelthought.
Parker came in from the terrace, slipping her BlackBerryinto her pocket. She caught sight of Laurel. “Saturday evening’sbride. Basic nerves. All smooth. Emma and Jack are heading over,Mrs. G.”
“Well, if I’m cooking for an army, some of the troops had bettersit. Keep your fingers off that bacon, boy,” she warned Del,“until you’re at the table like the civilized.”
“Just trying to get a head start. I’ll take it over. Hey, Laurel,how’s the head?”
“Still on my shoulders.” She set down the sketchbook, pickedup the pitcher of juice.
“Morning.” Carter smiled at her. “What happened to yourhead?”
“Del beat it against the stairs.”
“After she hit me and ripped my shirt.”
“Because you were drunk and knocked me down.”
“I wasn’t drunk, and you fell.”
“That’s his story.”
“Sit down and behave,” Mrs. G ordered. She turned as Jack andEmma came in. “Are your hands clean?” she demanded of Jack.
“Then take this and go sit.”
He accepted the platter of French toast, sniff ed deeply. “Whatdid you make for everybody else?”
She laughed and swatted at him.
“Hey,” he said to Del.
They’d been friends since college, and as tight as brothers sinceJack had relocated to Greenwich to open his architectural firm. Hetook his place at the breakfast nook, movie-star handsome with hiswavy, dark blond hair, smoky eyes, quick grin.
The fact that he was dressed in a suit told Laurel he had a clientmeeting in his office rather than an appointment on a constructionsite.
“Shirt’s ripped,” Jack said to Del as he nabbed a slice of bacon.
“Laurel did it.”
Jack wiggled his eyebrows at her. “Feisty.”
They grinned at each other as Mac came in. “God! This betterbe worth it. Come here.” She grabbed Carter, yanked him againsther for a noisy kiss. “I earned that.”
“You’re all . . . rosy,” he murmured and bent his head to kiss heragain.
“Stop that nonsense and sit down before the food gets cold.”
Mrs. G gave him a flick on the arm as she carried the coff eepot tothe table to fill mugs.
Mrs. G was in her element, Laurel knew. She had a full broodto fuss over and order around. She’d revel in the number and thenoise of them, and when she’d had enough of both, she’d kickthem all out of her kitchen. Or retreat to her rooms for some peaceand quiet.
But for now, with the scents of coff ee and bacon and cinnamon,with platters being emptied and plates filled, Mrs. G had things justas she wanted.
Laurel understood the need to feed, the desire—even thepassion—to put food in front of someone and urge them to eat. Itwas life and comfort, authority and satisfaction. And if you’d preparedthat food with your own hands, your own skill, it was, in avery real way, love.
She supposed she’d learned some of that right here when Mrs. Ghad taught her how to roll out a pastry shell or mix batter or test aloaf of bread for doneness. More than the basics of baking, she’dlearned if you put some love and pride into the mix, the dough rosetruer.
“Head okay?” Del asked her.
“Yes, no thanks to you. Why?”
“Because you’re quiet.”
“Who can get a word in?” she asked as conversations crisscrossedthe table.
“How about a professional query?”
She eyed him warily over a bite of French toast. “Such as?”
“I need a cake.”
“Everyone needs cake, Del.”
“That should be your slogan. Dara’s coming back from maternityleave. I thought we’d do a little office welcome back, happybaby and all that.”
It was a nice thing to do for his paralegal, and very like him.“When?”
“As in this Thursday?” Also just like him, she thought. “Whatkind of cake?”
“A good one.”
“That’s the only kind I make. Give me a clue here. How manypeople?”
“Sheet or layered?”
He sent her a pleading look. “Help me, Laurel. You know Dara.Just whatever you figure.”
“Is she allergic to anything?”
“No. I don’t think.” He topped off her coff ee an instant before shethought to do so herself. “It doesn’t have to be spectacular. Just a nicecake for an office deal. I could go to the market and pick one upbut . . . that’s what I’d get,” he said, pointing at the scowl on her face.“I can pick it up Wednesday after work if you can squeeze it in.”
“I’ll squeeze it in because I like Dara.”
“Thanks.” He reached over to give her hand a pat. “Gotta run.I’ll pick up that paperwork Wednesday,” he told Parker. “Let meknow about the other stuff when you figure it out.”
He stood, then walked to Mrs. G. “Thanks.”
He gave her a quick, casual kiss on the cheek first. Then camethe hug, and it was the hug that always made Laurel’s heart mush.Serious grip, cheek to the hair, eyes closed, just a little sway. Del’shugs mattered, she thought, and made him impossible to resist.
“Pretend to behave yourself,” Mrs. Grady ordered.
“That I can do. See you.” He gave a wave to the rest of thegroup, then went out the back.
“I’d better get moving, too. Mrs. G,” Jack said, “you are the goddessof the kitchen. The empress of epicure.”
She gave her big laugh at that. “Go to work.”
“I’d better get started, too. I’ll walk out with you,” Emma said.
“Actually, I’ve got something I’d like your take on,” Laurel saidto Emma before she could rise.
“Then I get to have more coff ee.” She shifted to fuss with theknot of Jack’s tie, then tugged it until their lips met. “Bye.”
“See you tonight. I’ll drop those revised plans by, Parker.”
“Should I get out of the way?” Carter asked when Jack left.
“You’re allowed to stay, and even comment.” Laurel scooted outfor her sketchbook. “I had a brainstorm last night, so I worked upan idea for the wedding cake.”
“My cake? Our cake,” Mac corrected quickly with a grin forCarter. “I wanna see, I wanna see!”
“Presentation,” Laurel said sternly, “is a watchword of Icing atVows. So, while the inspiration for this design primarily stems fromthe bride—”
“It also factors in what the designer sees as qualities that attractthe groom to said bride, and vice versa. So we have, I think, a blendingof the traditional and nontraditional in both form and flavor.Added to this, the designer has known the bride for more than twodecades, and has developed a deep and sincere attachment to thegroom—all of which play into the concept—but will ensure thatany critiques of said concept will be gracefully accepted.”
“That’s bull.” Parker rolled her eyes. “You’ll be pissed off if shedoesn’t like it.”
“That’s only true because if she doesn’t like it, she’s an idiot.Which means I’ve been friends with an idiot for over two decades.”
“Just let me see the damn design.”
“I can adjust the size once you’ve nailed down your guest list.The current concept’s good for two hundred.” Laurel flipped openthe book, held up the sketch.
She didn’t have to hear Mac’s breath catch to know. She saw itin the stunned delight on her face.
“The colors are pretty true to what I’d do, and you can see I’dwant to do a variety of cakes and fillings. Your Italian cream, andthe chocolate with raspberry Carter favors, the yellow, maybe withpastry cream. It’s just one way to do your cake sampler fantasy.”
“If Mac doesn’t like it, I’ll take it,” Emma announced.
“It doesn’t suit you. It’s Mac’s if she wants it. The flowers can bechanged,” Laurel added, “to whatever ones you and Emma decideon for your bouquets and arrangements—but I’d stick with the colorpalette. You’re not white icing, Mac. You’re color.”
“Please don’t hate it,” Mac murmured to Carter.
“How could I? It’s stunning.” He glanced over at Laurel, gaveher a slow, sweet smile. “Plus, I heard chocolate with raspberry. Ifwe’re voting, it gets mine.”
“Mine, too,” Emma said.
“I’m thinking you’d better hide that sketch.” Parker nodded atLaurel. “If our clients get a look at it, we’re going to have bridesfighting for that cake. Nailed it in one, Laurel.”
Mac stood to step closer, to take the pad and study. “The shape,the textures, not to mention the colors. Oh, oh, the photographswe’ll get! Which you considered,” she added, shifting her gaze toLaurel’s.
“It’s hard to think about you without thinking photography.”
“I love it. You know I love it. You knew I’d love it. You knowme.” She put her arms around Laurel, squeezed hard, then did alittle dance. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Let me have a look at that.” Mrs. Grady took the book out ofMac’s hand and studied the sketch with narrowed eyes and pursedlips.
Then she nodded, looked at Laurel. “Good girl. And now, all ofyou, out of my kitchen.”