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The soft sound of wedding music flowed through the quiet church. A hush fell over the crowd of people gathered to celebrate the wedding of Alma Blanchard and Julien LeBlanc. Candlelight gave the tiny sanctuary a muted, dreamy glow. The groom beamed a bright, loving smile as his bride seemed to glide up the aisle, escorted by her misty-eyed father.
Alma's older sister Callie, the maid of honor, looked radiant in a light golden silk dress with a flowing skirt. She smiled at her sister, her expression full of love and hope.
The other bridesmaid, wearing a similar dress with a fitted skirt, tried hard not to squirm and fidget. Brenna Blanchard sent up a little prayer for courage and self-control.
Dear Lord, please don't let me bolt out of this church.
She couldn't, wouldn't do that to Alma. Alma and Julien were so in love. They'd been in love since high school, but circumstances and stubbornness had torn them apart for ten long years. It was their time to shine.
Brenna could hang on for a few minutes. As long as she didn't think about her own broken heart and the fact that technically, she should have been the one getting married, she'd be okay. Concentrating on the beautiful arrangement at the center of the aisle, she marveled at how her sister Callie could take sunflowers, mums and yellow roses and turn them into something exquisite. And what was the deal with all the Louisiana irises, anyway? Maybe Alma had a thing for irises?
Brenna forced herself into a serene pose as she smiled at her sister. Alma did look lovely in their mother's reworked wedding dress. Hadn't Callie worn that same dress on her wedding day? Wouldn't that sort of jinx the dress because she'd gotten a divorce?
No, this was their maman's dress. Lacy and flowing and full-skirted, with a portrait collar. Beautiful.
Brenna's eyes misted over, the ache in her heart still an open wound. She wished their deceased mother, Lila, could see Alma now. She'd be so happy.
I'll be happy for you, Mama, Brenna thought now, her gaze scanning the crowded church. I won't be sad no matter how much I miss you, no matter how much I wish I could be the one walking up that aisle.
Brenna had a brief flash of pain, like a thorn from one of Callie's beautiful roses, as she thought of her ex-fiance and wondered why she'd had love and lost it. Oh, wait, according to Jeffrey, her former fiance, she wasn't good enough for him. He'd never said that out loud, but he'd shown it, loud and clear. Jeffrey hadn't said a lot of things, but she'd found out so much about him too late. Never again would she be interested in a man who held everything inside or kept things from her.
But in her heart she knew she really hadn't loved Jeffrey the way her mama and daddy had loved each other. She'd never loved him the way Alma loved Julien. She'd kind of stumbled upon Jeffrey and decided he'd make a perfect groom and a good husband.
Not. Maybe the brooding type wasn't her type, after all.
Brenna saw Alma's smile light up when her gaze settled on Julien, saw the way his grin went from happy to awestruck to humble with each step her beautiful sister took toward him.
I want that kind of love, she thought as she stood tall and held her head high. I want someone who will look at me the way Julien is looking at Alma right now.
Brenna glanced out into the crowd and locked eyes with a man sitting toward the back on the outside aisle, a man with dark hair and dark eyes, dressed in what elsea dark suit.
Who's the good-looking stranger? she wondered. And why did he keep staring at her?
Who's the looker? Nicholas Santiago wondered, his gaze lingering on the second bridesmaid on the left. The bridesmaid who looked as if she'd rather be anywhere else but here.
She had hair the color of the tallow tree leaves falling outside, a rich golden-hued auburn that only burned brighter against the creamy gold of her dress. He couldn't see her eyes, but he'd guess they were a vivid green or maybe a vivid hazel. She shouted fire and heat, which probably meant she also liked a bit of drama.
Well, so did he.
But lately, he'd had too much drama. And coming to a sweet wedding simply because his new friend Callie Blanchard Moreau had invited him had seemed like a good idea when he rolled into town a few weeks ago. Now, Nick wasn't so sure. Too many bad memories.
"Please come, Nicholas," Callie had said. "Weddings are a good way to meet people. If you're going to be here for a while, you need to meet everyone. And we'll feed you. Alma insisted on cooking most of the food for her own wedding. You might even get a mention in Mr. Son-nier's 'Ain't that Good' column because he'll be here covering the wedding to help promote Alma's gumbo. You know, he's helping her to mass-produce it and sell it all over Louisiana. She hopes to expand in the next couple of years."
Callie was a talker, but the woman knew her flowers. And he'd need her help once he got the old Dubois estate, known around here as Fleur House, renovated for his picky client. They'd been good friends since he'd first come to Fleur a few months ago to check out the old antebellum mansion and purchase it for his secretive boss. Nicholas had remembered his mother's birthday, and Callie had helped him wire some flowers to her back in Texas. After they'd talked about the renovations at Fleur House and how he needed help decorating it, Callie had mentioned one of her sisters was an art expert. And that the sister would be at the wedding, of course.
So here he was, being courteous, being neighborly, by attending a quaint little wedding in a simple little church on a crisp fall Friday night.
And a good thing, too. He really wanted Callie to introduce him to that fidgety, adorable redhead and he sure hoped she was the sister who knew her art.
Brenna checked her lipstick and turned to head back in to the reception. The church fellowship hall was beautiful. Callie had outdone herself with the fall theme. And irises everywhere. She must have forced those to bloom this time of year, or found some that rebloomed in the fall. Callie could do anything with flowers. She'd managed to make this big, plain white room turn into what looked like a fall garden.
Shaking her head, Brenna rounded a corner and ran smack into him. The one she'd named Tall, Dark and Dark.
"Oh, I'm so sorry." He grabbed her by both arms, holding her steady while she stared up into those well yes dark eyes. "I should watch where I'm going."
"I'm okay," Brenna said, touching a hand to her upswept hairdo. "Nice reception, isn't it?"
How dumb could she be? Did he actually care about the reception?
He gave her a once-over. "Very nice."
Brenna hoped he didn't notice the blush popping out over her freckles. She did not blush prettily.
"See you later maybe?" He waved a hand in the air and Brenna immediately noticed his expensive gold watch. So like Jeffrey's.
That turned her off enough to start walking away. "I should get back."
"Hey, don't leave in such a hurry."
He had a bit of an accent. Hispanic maybe. That would explain the hunky dark good looks.
She turned, smiled at him. What would it hurt to flirt with a nice-looking man? He wasn't wearing a wedding ring and neither was she. She needed to stay in practice, didn't she? But she couldn't find the courage to have her heart stomped again.
"I have bridesmaid duties." She thought hard, but couldn't remember exactly what those duties might be.
"Very important job," he said, coming to stand with her while they gazed out on the crowded room. "The first being, of course, to stand around and look gorgeous?"
Brenna giggled. "You're not serious, right? I mean that's a line, isn't it?"
He grinned and the brilliance of it sizzled the paint on the walls. "Did it work?"
Well, she was laughing. That was something new. But Brenna didn't want to laugh. So no flirting, no laughing. And nothing left to say. Awkward.
"Oh, good, you two have finally met each other." Callie twirled and pranced toward them. "Brenna, this is my friend Nicholas Santiago." She smiled at him, then touched a hand on Brenna's arm. "And this is my baby sister. I think I mentioned her to you. She's home for a while from Baton Rouge."
The man gave Brenna another one of those smoldering looks. "So you're the little sister. Wow."
"That's me," Brenna said, smelling a setup. "Wow. Nice to meet you, Nicholas."
"Nick," he said, taking Brenna's hand. "I was about to introduce myself. Once we got out on the dance floor."
Brenna bristled. "I didn't say I'd dance with you."
"But you will," her bossy sister said, pushing her toward Nicholas. "Don't be rude to my friend."
"I uh "
But it was too late. They were suddenly moving across the dance floor to the tune of a Cajun-inspired waltz. Brenna glanced around and saw her sisters smiling and waving. She'd deal with them later. Her daddy, Ramon, waved to her from where he sat with Julien's friend Tebow and Tebow's mother. He'd been hanging out with that woman way too much lately.
"You have such an interesting family," Nicholas said. He wasn't looking at her family, though. He was looking down at her.
"Yes, they're very colorful and ever so helpful."
"You have a cute Southern accent."
Still looking at her.
So she stared back. "You have a different kind of accent."
"I was born in Mexico but moved to Texas when I was a teenager."
He said it with a thickening of his accent. Me-he-co. She almost missed a step.
"How did you wind up here?"
He laughed at her deliberate smile. "Good question." Then he whirled her around again. The man smelled like a fresh rain out on the sea. So good. No, not good. Not good at all.
Brenna pulled in her flaring nostrils. "Well, what are you doing here?"
"I'm an architect. I'm here to oversee the renovations on the Dubois house. We've been working on it for a month or so now. Just about finished with the inside."
"Fleur House." That got Brenna's attention. "Oh, I love that house. I used to go past there and wonder what kind of art was inside those old walls. I'd decorate it inside my head. I always heard Mr. and Mrs. Dubois had quite a collection at one time. Of course, I never actually got to go inside the house."
He gave her what looked like a teasing glance. "Callie tells me you have a deep appreciation for art."
"Appreciate. Yes, more like a passion. I make my living from selling it," she replied. "I work in a gallery in Baton Rouge." Or at least, she had. "Budget cuts have forced me on an indefinite layoff, however."
He nodded, inclined his head toward her. "Brenna mentioned that to me. It's good to know. I might need some help with the renovations. My employer will expect some world-class pieces and I could use a hand picking them out. I know what I like, but he has very refined taste and a big wallet to back it. And although he told me to sur14
Sweetheart Bride prise him, I need an expert." He winked. "I think you'd be perfect."
Brenna scanned the room for Callie. So she could murder her. "What a coincidence. Because I know my nosy sister wouldn't dare put you up to dancing with me just so we could discuss art, now would she?"
He actually looked confused and then he grinned. "No. I wanted to dance with you before I knew you were Callie's sister." Leaning close, he said, "I have to admit, I was hoping you were the art expert, however. I saw you fidgeting up there by the bride. You obviously don't enjoy weddings."
Brenna wanted to explain exactly why she didn't enjoy weddings, but that would be rude. "I'm very happy for my sister, but weddings give me the hives."
"Oh, I see. You're not ready to settle down."
"I'm just not ready to settle," she said on a snap.
"Hmm, someone is bitter."
"I'm sorry." He whirled her around the floor, bringing admiring stares from the onlookers. "If it makes you feel any better, I've been burned a few times myself."
"It should, but it doesn't." She didn't want to be mean, but this man was annoying. But easy on the eyes while he was being annoying. His suit looked expensive. His hair glistened like wet ink. And those eyespart pirate and part heartbreaker.
Brenna was pretty sure she heard sirens and warning bells going off inside her head.
"I won't tease you anymore," he said, turning serious.
She changed the subject. "And as far as getting my advice on art?"
"I'm a businessman, Brenna. I need an art expert. Your sister was thrilled to tell me about you and how talented you are, but if you're not interested"
"I am," Brenna said, wishing she could climb into the wedding cake and never come out. "I mean, I'm always interested in acquiring good art. But my expert opinions don't come cheap."
"I'm willing to pay you a fair salary," he said, giving her one last glance. "I enjoyed our dance. But if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work."
"On a Friday night?" Brenna said, more to herself than him. She had actually begun to enjoy talking to him.
"Every night," he replied. With a wave and what seemed like a dismissal, he turned and left.
And Brenna realized the music had stopped.