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"Damn, damn, damn!"
Matt leaned on the horn as a Cadillac swerved into his lane without indicating and slowed to about twenty-five miles an hour. He was now over an hour late for the wedding rehearsal, and at this rate he was going to miss the dinner, as well. In Matt Jacobs's world, only idiots showed up late, and he didn't like to be one.
He accelerated around the Caddy but suppressed the urge to flip the driver off. How could getting to a wedding be so difficult? Getting to Chicago from Atlanta should have been easy. But, no. Instead, a last-minute client meeting caused him to miss his flight out last night, and bad weather canceled or delayed all outgoing flights this morning. The resulting chaos at Hartsfield airport as the airlines reshuffled put him at O'Hare without even enough time to grab a shower before fighting the traffic out to the church in his old stomping grounds of Berwyn.
His cell phone rang. Glancing at the number, he contemplated ignoring it. He was on his first real vacation in three years, after all. Instead he answered the call on hands-free and barked instructions at the paralegal at the other end.
Swinging the rental car into a parking space at the church, he could see the caterer carrying food into the parish hall behind the sanctuary. At least he was still in time for dinner.
"Look, make the changes they want. It's not a real problem. Just be sure to run the contract by Darren to double-check before anyone signs it. You all will have to handle this without me. I'll check messages on Monday, but I'm turning my phone off now." He tossed the phone into the glove compartment for good measure. He'd been accused of being a workaholic before, and it hadserved him well so far, but even he had his breaking point. They could damn well get by without him for a week.
The October breeze felt good after a day spent in airports and airplanes, but the nip it carried promised winter was not far behind. Grumbling, he grabbed his jacket from the backseat. He'd traded frigid, snowy winters for hot, sunnier climes years ago and never regretted it.
When he entered the church, he could see Brian surrounded by his family, playing the part of happy groom to the hilt, and several of his high-school friends milling about. He forgot about his disastrous afternoon as Brian caught his eye and waved and Jason, another of their childhood friends, approached Matt with a large grin.
"You made it. I was starting to wonder."
"Me, too." Matt ran a tired hand through his hair, wishing again he'd had time for a shower. "Did you pick up my tux?"
"It's at Brian's."
"Thanks. How mad is Brian that I missed the rehearsal?"
"Oh, he's fine about it. It's Ella who's spitting fire." Jason nodded toward a group of women surrounding the bride.
"The maid of horrors. I'd steer clear if I were you." Jason paused as a woman carrying a clipboard separated herself from the group and headed in their direction.
Oh, that Ella. In the three years Brian had been dating Melanie, he'd heard about her, but their paths had never crossed before now. "I think she'll"
"Too late. Someone's told her you're here. See ya." Jason practically ran toward the other groomsmen, who called out greetings but made no attempt to come over and say hello to him.
Watching Jason hightail it away was strange enough, but the others' attitudes were equally odd. What was that about? Matt turned his attention to the young woman purposefully approaching him, her high heels tapping on the stone floors.
She was petite, almost tiny really, but perfectly formed for her height. Silky dark hair brushed her shoulders and called attention to her fair skin. In a pale-blue dress that clung in all the right places and seemed to float around her shapely calves, she hardly looked like a harridan who would send Jason skittering off to the safety of the other groomsmen. As she got closer, he could see that what would have normally been a very pretty face was pinched with stress.
"I'm Ella, Melanie's maid of honor. You're Matt, right?"
So much for the polite formalities. With a smile meant to charm, he extended his hand to her. "Matt Jacobs, best man, reporting for duty, ma'am."
"Great." The word had zero emotion behind it, and she shook his hand absently. "We were worried that you wouldn't make it at all tonight." She had yet to actually look at him directly, and he found himself wondering what color her eyes were. She remained focused on the clipboard in front of her and consulted it as she talked. "David Parks stood in for you at the rehearsal. You'll need to get with him so that he can show you where to go and what to do. We don't have time to walk through it all again, but David and Brian can probably tell you everything you'll need to know. If you have any questions, come talk to me."
She had a soft, almost husky voice that clashed with her size, but her tone was all business. And, unless he was losing it, he was hearing a drawl that said she wasn't native to the area. "Let's see, after dinner, Father Mike wants to meet with you and the other groomsmen in his study, so don't disappear. Now, did someone pick up your tux for you?"
Ella may have been pocket-size, but she was formidable. No wonder Jason ran at her approach. All Matt could do was nod as she jumped from topic to topic.
"Good." She actually checked something off on the list in front of her. "Be sure to try it on tonight to make sure it fits. Check you have all the shirt studs and cuff links as well. If there are any problems, call the shop in the morning, and they'll make arrangements for you to come in. Here's the number." She handed him a business card. Pausing, she looked him over carefully, eyes narrowed, and he had the uneasy feeling he was being inspected for something. Whatever she was looking for, he guessed he passed, because she nodded and checked something else off her list. "Now, I need to talk to you about the bachelor party. I assume you have something planned for this evening"
Matt interrupted her with a laugh. "Don't worry. I already told Melanie that I wouldn't lead Brian astray or"
"I don't care what y'all do." Surprise and disbelief must have shown on his face because she waved a hand dismissively. "Seriously, I don't. All I care is that you have Brian at this church, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready for pictures by one o'clock. Understand?"
She finally looked directly at him with her last statement. Wide green eyes held a "Don't mess with me" warning, and silent agreement seemed the safest course of action.
"Good. Make sure the other groomsmen understand that, as well. I don't want any bleary, half-drunken men coming in late and unshaven." Consulting her clipboard one last time, she seemed satisfied and attempted a smile that fell flat when it didn't reach her eyes. "I know Brian is looking for you, so I'll let you go find him." A cell phone Matt hadn't seen earlier rang, and Ella juggled the clipboard to her other hand as she retrieved it. With an "Excuse me" she was gone, already engrossed in conversation with whoever was on the other end.
Clearly dismissed, he watched her walk to where the caterers were setting up for dinner, obviously unhappy about something and consulting her clipboard as she went.
With Ella's departure, Jason returned to his side. "I told you so."
He understood now why Jason and the other groomsmen were staying far away. "Good Lord, I haven't been talked to like that since Sister Mary Thomas called me into her office in tenth grade after the girls' locker room had been raided."
"Exactly." A bitter and exasperated tone edged Jason's voice. Ella must have really given him a hard time about something. "Hell, she lined us all up earlier, checking to see if we needed haircuts."
So that's what the inspection was about.
"Well, she made an appointment for me to get a haircut and called to make sure I went." Brian had finally disengaged himself from his family and joined the group surrounding Matt. Brian greeted his oldest and best friend with, "So for once you're the idiot."
"I know, I'm sorry. The airline canceled"
"No problem." Brian's good-natured shrug was a nice contrast to Ella's earlier reaction. "It's not all that complicated a job. Stand, walk, hold the ring. You're a smart guyI think you can handle it."
"I'm not sure Ella agrees with you."
"Ella? She knows you'll have it under control. Melanie and this wedding have her wound a bit tight these days, but Mel would be a complete basket case by now without her. She's done an amazing job."
"Well, I don't know much about her, but she's certainly missed her true calling."
Brian nodded. "Yeah, I've been telling her for weeks now she should open her own bridal consulting business."
"I was actually thinking drill sergeant. Or maybe one of those nuns from high school."
"Ella? A nun? Hardly." Brian laughed. "We call her Melanie's attack Chihuahua. Tiny, but fierce when crossed. You might be onto something with the drill sergeant thing, though." He inclined his head toward his groomsmen. "She certainly has this motley crew toeing the line."
Matt looked over to where Ella had reestablished herself by Melanie's side, cell phone and clipboard held unobtrusively behind her back. Whatever the crisis had been, it was either averted or solved, and Ella was all smiles as she talked to Melanie and her family. The pinched look was still there around her eyes, but she certainly no longer looked quite so formidable. In fact, she looked
No, Ella wasn't nun material. Hiding that body under a nun's habit would be a crime. He watched as Ella answered her cell again, and her expression changed from serene to agitated as she read the riot act to the poor fool on the other end. This was going to be one interesting wedding.
Melanie's wedding day dawned bright and beautiful, and Ella spent the day with her at the local spa being massaged, manicured, coiffed and pamperedin between phone calls concerning minor and major wedding emergencies. She'd intentionally booked Melanie's treatments opposite hers so the incoming calls would not distract or worry Melanie on her big day, but Ella had her hands full. She dealt with the caterer's problems during her pedicure and the florist's glitch during her massage. Brian's mother called twice during her hair appointment, frustrating both Ella and the stylist. Tension set in to muscles only recently kneaded, and a headache pulsed behind her eyes. She felt like she was the only person to ever leave a spa treatment more stressed than when she went in.
But, as she sat at the head table during the reception watching Melanie and Brian's first dance, she knew it had all been worth it. Melanie's wedding was everything they'd hoped for. Melanie glowed with happiness as she smiled at Brian and leaned in close to him. They made a stunning coupleboth tall, blond, perfect peopleand they were very much, very obviously to everyone, in love.
Ella couldn't have been more pleased. Or tired. Her face ached from smiling; her hand was limp and slightly bruised from shaking hands with a hundred guests in the receiving line. She was bone-weary from the past weeks of planning, organizing and keeping Mel calm and happy. All right, she'd admit there was a teeny-tiny bit of envy in there, too, but Mel was so blatantly happy, anyone would be envious.
At times like this, she wanted to believe in the fairy tale, the white picket fence and the happily-ever-after. Not that she knew very many people who actually made it work. Her parents had been, as Melanie kindly called it, too "free-spirited" to commit to anyone or anything, preferring free love and the call of the road. Even her grandparents hadn't managed it. In the end, they'd loved her, but not each other anymore.
But Mel believed it, and Brian knew that a failure on his part to deliver would be a death sentence. Not that she'd needed to make that threat. Melanie was the center of Brian's universe. Anyone could see that.
Lucky Melanie. Guys like Brian weren't exactly thick on the ground, though. She had a string of failures to prove it. Not that she was blameless, as Melanie reminded her all too often, but some people just weren't designed to do the whole my-one-and-only-soul-mate thing.
She was one of them. Bad genes, probably.
Maybe it was exhaustion, or possibly that fifth glass of champagne, but either way, she was getting just a tiny bit maudlin. That had to explain this need to navel gaze in the middle of Melanie's reception.
Emotion plus champagne equaled weepiness, so she forced herself to concentrate simply on the success of the moment. She could obsess over everything else tomorrow. Once Mel and Brian said their goodbyes, she was going home and going to bed.
Sleep. Sleep was all she needed to get everything back in perspective.
As other couples joined the bride and groom on the dance floor, Ella felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to find Matt Jacobs standing behind her chair. He held out a hand to her.
"Would you like to dance?"
It took a second for his question to register. One eyebrow arched up in response to her silence and she swallowed her shock. "I'd love to."
Placing his hand at the small of her back, Matt steered her toward the dance floor, and every nerve ending jumped to full alert. Although she'd been too busy last night to pay much attention to him, her proximity to him today had made it impossible for her not to notice him.
Melanie always described Matt as a cutie, but Ella decided he was really in the drop-dead-gorgeous categoryparticularly in his tuxedo. And he was huge. The cut of the tux just seemed to emphasize his wide chest, broad shoulders and lean waist. All day she'd felt like a midget just standing next to himeven in heels, she barely reached his shouldersa feeling not helped by the constant fussing of the photographer as he tried to line them up for photos.
Matt's size had one benefit, thoughhe had no problem moving through the crowd. For once she didn't feel as though she was trying to fight her way through blackberry bramble. Instead folks just magically seemed to move out of the way.