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If she ever had a chance at a storybook wedding, Marta Lawson thought, she'd choose one just like this: a beautiful Saturday in October, the church filling with friends and family and, waiting at the altar, a man too special for words.
Well, best not to think about that last part.
She refocused on the decorations she'd helped select. Amid the blue-and-white flower arrangements, porcelain-doll faces peered out of frosty lace cascades like princesses from another world. In the foyer, a doll wearing a replica of the bridal gown sat on a tabletop beside the guest book.
The brideMarta's cousin Conniehad devised additional charming touches: china figurines arranged here and there amid miniature bouquets, and prisms by the windows that split the light into shimmering colors. Connie's owning two boutiques and a hospital gift concession gave her and Marta, the maid of honor, a definite edge when it came to finding such treasures. Marta, in fact, managed the concession, located in the Mesa View Medical Center in Villazon, California. She took pride in ferreting out appealing items from catalogs and Internet sites.
"Connie sure did a number on this place," said bridesmaid Rachel McKenzie, who at five foot eleven towered over the diminutive Marta. The two stood in the otherwise empty vestibule, sneaking peeks into the sanctuary. At any minute, the photo-taking of the bride with her parents would finish and the ceremony could begin.
Mercifully, Connie had allowed her two attendants to wear blue dresses instead of her original choice, shell pink, which hadn't suited Rachel at all. Nevertheless, the taller bridesmaid kept fidgeting as if she couldn't wait tochange into her usual attire: police uniform and boots. As for Marta, her shorter stature wasn't all the guests might notice. Despite her best efforts, her tendrils of light brown, shoulder-length hair didn't entirely hide the scars from a near-fatal car crash nearly a dozen years ago, and the walk down the aisle would inevitably expose her limp.
But to be able to walk at all was a blessing. And her scars well, what did a few blemishes matter in the wake of near tragedy?
Okay, in one respect they did matter. If Marta were pretty and graceful, the best man, Sergeant Derek Reed, might see her as something more than a buddy.
But she wouldn't like that, not really. At the police department, Derek had a reputation as a playboy. And at the hospital, where he conducted weekly crime-prevention seminars, the nurses who dropped into Marta's shop referred to him as Sergeant Hit-and-Run.
Wistfully, she gazed past the rows of guests, who included fellow employees, police colleagues of the groom's and a sprinkling of other friends and relatives. Near the altar, her gaze riveted on the masculine figure poised beside the groom.
thick blond hair and dark eyes that surveyed the scene with deceptive laziness. He drew feminine interest as easily as he breathed.
Not only was he a close friend of Connie's husband-to-be, Detective Hale Crandall, but both men had originally entered Marta's circle of friends several years ago as buddies of Connie's first husband, Sergeantnow LieutenantJoel Simmons. During her cousin's troubled early marriage and the years following the divorce, Marta had succeeded in banishing the unattainable Derek to the periphery of her thoughts.
Then, nearly a year ago, the police chief had appointed him to the position of community relations and public information officer. His tasks included finessing the questions of reporters intent on rehashing old police department scandals, a good post for such an articulate man.
His duties also included coordinating a public service program to detect and prevent crimes ranging from child neglect to prescription-drug abuse. In that capacity, he visited the hospital every Thursday morning for staff meetings.
To the best of Marta's knowledge, he'd had two girlfriends during this period, neither of whom had lasted more than a few months. There'd also been several flirtations, mostin her observationinstigated by the women.
When he arrived for the meetings, Derek had formed the habit of stopping in to purchase a candy bar and swap jokes with Marta. She searched the Internet for funny items to inspire his wonderful deep laughter.
How exhausting to feel eager anticipation each time he approached and rueful disappointment when he left! Maybe if he fell in love with someone, she'd finally see what a hopeless case she was and get over him.
Marta sighed. When Rachel quirked an eyebrow, she covered her feelings by gesturing toward the sanctuary. "Doesn't everyone look great all dressed up?"
"I think Skip needs to go to the bathroom," replied the pragmatic Rachel, indicating the seven-year-old ring bearer. The former foster child, whom the bride and groom were adopting, bounced from one foot to the other.
"He's just excited," Marta said.
off the wall," Rachel responded.
Hale must have entertained similar thoughts, because he aimed a couple of mock punches at his son-to-be. The two tussled playfully before settling into their proper positions once more.
Marta saw Derek give a half smile. Once the most outgoing in a highly sociable group of police officers, he'd begun holding himself apart in recent months. At least, he'd seemed that way to Marta; no one else had commented on the change. Perhaps he'd always maintained a certain reserve and she simply hadn't noticed.
The swish of fabric drew the bridesmaids'attention toward the hall. Connie had arrived with her mother and father in tow. Her stepmother had taken a seat earlier.
Marta's beautiful blond cousin had always been a draw for men. Today, in a sleek silk gown, a wreath of flowers and a glow of happiness, she looked magnificent.
She and Hale were perfect for each other, although they'd taken a long while to discover that. With Connie's sharp tongue and Hale's talent for provoking her, the two next-door neighbors had carried on a friendly feud for years.
They'd recognized their mutual attraction at last, becoming the second new couple among Marta's tight-knit circle. Only five months ago, Rachel and pediatrician Russ McKenzie had exchanged vows at this same altar. Rachel, who'd expected to be the last of the trio to marry, used to joke that she'd probably have to arrest the guy first, and in fact had mistaken Russ for a suspect when they initially met. He still teased her about handcuffing him.
To Marta, marriage seemed a distant and receding dream. Fortunately, she had other goals. After putting her education on hold during her rehabilitation, she'd finally saved enough money to take an evening class at a nearby university and planned to sign up for two classes next semester. Eventually she'd be a teacher, as she'd always wanted.
So she tried not to envy her cousin that beatific expression or the love that awaited her at the end of the aisle. Marta was genuinely glad for Connie. She also relished the temporary peace between her high-strung aunt Anna and strong-willed uncle Jim, ex-spouses who'd set aside their differences to walk their daughter down the aisle. In their late fifties, both retained more than a little of the good looks and natural elegance that had once made them a dazzling couple.
"We better line up, huh?" Rachel scooted to the sanctuary entrance and raised her bouquet. Marta took a position behind her.
"Remember not to gallop!" Anna warned.
"How about a fast trot?" Rachel, famous for her long legs and rapid pace, grinned at the group. "Don't tell me you all forgot your roller skates!"
The bride's laughter softened her mother's frown. "Skip would get a kick out of that," Anna conceded. Although not the grandmotherly type, she'd developed a fondness for her new grandson.
In the sanctuary, the organist shifted into a march. "Everyone ready?" asked Uncle Jim.
"Ready as we'll ever be," Rachel rejoined.
"Go! Go!" urged Aunt Anna.
Rachel began at a stately pace, forgetting herself only so far as to wave the bouquet at her husband and young stepdaughter, Lauren. Unfortunately, however, she couldn't contain herself for more than a few yards, and soon shifted into second gear, then third.
The unfortunate result was that, when Rachel reached the altar, Marta still faced a long stretch of aisle. She felt a hundred or so pairs of eyes absorbing the unevenness of her gait. And surely everyone noticed that one of her pumps had a built-up sole to compensate for the length that leg had lost.
Marta kept her chin up. When she felt a pinch of pain in her hip, she did her best to hide it.
Ahead, Derek lifted one eyebrow sympathetically. He really had wonderful brows: thick, with an arch on the right side that did a splendid job of expressing skepticism or shared humor, as now. His warmth put the whole situation into perspective and helped dissipate her awkwardness.
With relief, Marta reached the front and assumed her place. As the music soared and all faces turned toward the head of the aisle, she whispered to Rachel, "Bouquet!"
Her fellow bridesmaid jerked the drooping flowers into place. "Thanks," she murmured. "And sorry about my gallop."
To the strains of "Here Comes the Bride," Connie glided into view. Hale practically levitated with joy. The guy had been in love with Connie for years, Marta suspected, perhaps even before her divorce. Now he no longer had to conceal his feelings.
The whole church pulsed with good wishes. What more could a person ask than to be surrounded by the people she loved? Being part of this event felt almost like having a wedding of her own, Marta thought. She really was a lucky person in more ways than she could count.
AT YESTERDAY'S REHEARSAL, Derek hadn't taken much notice of the instructions beyond his duties during the wedding ceremony. He must have missed the part about standing in a receiving line at the reception. What fiend had devised this method of torture? he wondered as the umpteenth guest shuffled by en route to the nuptial couple.
His smile felt frozen in place. His back ached and his knee was bothering him. He'd identified strongly with Marta during her brave trek down the aisle.
Despite the discomfort, he was glad for Hale, who deserved this happiness. And grateful for the scents emanating from the buffet set up here in the Villa Inn ballroom. Now, when the chance to sample that cuisine?
Also, despite his stiffness, the rhythms thrumming from the band made him feel more like twenty-five than thirty-five.
Speaking of which, he'd give a lot to be twenty-five again, or even thirty. He'd had no idea those were the good old days. Ignorance really had been bliss.
During a lull between handshaking while the guests bunched at one end of the line, he turned to Marta beside him. Looming nearly a foot taller, Derek enjoyed an excellent view of the part in her hair and the cute curve of her nose.
"Who are all these people?" he asked rhetorically. Her heart-shaped face tilted toward him as she indicated a distinguished older woman teaching Skip a dance move on the otherwise empty floor. "Well, that'sYolanda Rios. She and I founded the homework center." Staffed by volunteers, the program provided tutoring for many of Villazon's struggling young students.
Marta could be such an innocent, Derek reflected. "I'd be a failure at community relations if I weren't on hugging terms withYolanda." He was about to explain that he hadn't expected an answer to his question when he saw someone who did arouse his curiosity. "Who's that lady dripping with diamonds?"
In her mid-forties and smartly dressed, the woman hung on the arm of a sixtyish man. Her expensive jewelry and trendy hairstyle reeked of money. Not exactly the type of woman one met often in blue-collar Villazon, a town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, unfashionably far from Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.
"That's my stepmother, Bryn," Marta said, to his astonishment. "Connie refers to her as Aunt Bling, but don't you dare."
This woman lived in high style while her stepdaughter pinched pennies? Derek had heard from friends about Marta's struggles to support herself during and after rehab. Still, perhaps Bryn had earned her money. "What kind of work does she do?"
"She quit her secretarial job when she married Dad."
"Is she an heiress?"
"Don't believe so."
Derek glared at the woman. Instinctively, feeling a bit off balance, he clamped a hand onto Marta's shoulder to brace himself. "Sorry." Embarrassed by his clumsiness, he straightened.
"Why? It's not every day I get groped by a hunk," she shot back.
him," Derek growled with pretended ferocity. Leaning down, he caught a whiff of Marta's springlike scent and nearly planted a kiss on the tip of her nose.
Crazy notion. He liked Marta, but that was the extent of his feelings.
Before he could return to the subject of her stepmother and the besotted bald man who must be her father, the line of guests broke its gridlock and surged toward them. More outthrust hands to shake, more pleasantries to exchange.
Across the ballroom, the band segued from a rock number to a Latin beat. Man, Derek loved to dance. Considering his balance problems, he probably ought to give it up, but not yet. They'd be through receiving guests any minute now, anyway.
"You're wiggling," Marta said.
His hips were swaying. "How's your mambo?"
"That beat isn't a mambo," she pointed out. "And with one leg shorter than the other, I look weird on the dance floor."
He appreciated Marta's candor. Still, she wasn't the only one with limitations. "Well, my leg's a little stiff from exercising, but I refuse to let that stop me. Why don't we go out there and tackle that Latin thing."
Marta shook her head. "I've staggered around in public enough for one day." However, the rhythmic twitch of her shoulders spoke more loudly than her protests.
"No one's watching." Derek gripped her waist and cradled her hand in his. "Let's tango our way over there, Cinderella."
She was so small and light he could have picked her up and carried her to the dance floor, except that he'd probably trip. And she might kick him in the shins for his efforts.
She escaped his grasp. "Not in front of everyone! And why'd you call me Cinderella?"
Derek grinned. "Because you have a wicked stepmother." Her green eyes sparkled. "But no stepsisters. Or brothers." "The comparison still applies." He'd heard the story in bits and pieces. "She persuaded your father to cut you off after they married, right?"
"No," Marta replied. "When I turned twenty-one, he felt that since I wasn't a dependent anymore, state aid should pay for my rehab."
"Great move, leaving his daughter to fend for herself." Derek frowned at this Aunt Bling, who remained oblivious. "Meanwhile his new wife is wearing his bank account on her earlobes."
Marta looked at him in a manner that Derek would have considered amusing had not his tiny antagonist appeared so earnest. "It's Dad's hard-earned money. I'm just glad he met a woman who makes him happy. He suffered a lot after my mom died."
She had an endearingly warm heart even toward those who'd treated her badly, which made Derek angry on her behalf. Still, he had to admit, he'd sometimes been accused of hard-heartedness himself. He always told women in advance that he wasn't the settling-down type. If they chose to ignore the warning, he couldn't be held responsible.