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Strapless gowns ought to be against the law. Jess Bennett tugged at the top of hers and wished she could blend in to the decor. Not that this amount of shiny turquoise satin could merge with anything, except maybe more shiny satin. She looked around the room for the three other women who were wearing the same dress but in different colors. Nicola, in bright yellow, and her husband, Jonathan, were on the dance floor. Maria, stunning in red, was sitting with her husband, who was proudly cradling their beautiful baby daughter in his arms. Paige was Where was Paige?
Jess's search for the fourth bridesmaid was intercepted by a man leaning against a column on the other side of the room. He was tall, and his dark good looks hinted at a Mediterranean heritage. Before now she hadn't seen him among the wedding guests, and she decided he was most likely an employee. She connected with his gaze for a second and looked away, but after failing to find her friend Paige, something drew her back to him.
He was still watching her.
She glanced down at the front of her dress and pulled it up some more. Rory, the bride, who was also one of her best friends in the world, had outfitted her bridesmaids in retro-inspired gowns that were designed to make the most of a woman's curves and cleavage. Or emphasize Jess's lack of them.
He was smiling when she looked at him again. She had a feeling he'd been watching her for a while, but he seemed more amused by her battle with the dress than he was interested in her.
Easy for him to find this funny. He was wearing an elegantly tailored suit, which probably wasn't as expensive as it looked, given what he was likely to earn working here. Meanwhile, she was decked out in a dress that was determined to abide by the laws of gravity, in spite of the torturous plastic boning stitched into the seams and an obscene amount of double-sided tape that had lost its stick sometime between the photographs and the pre-reception cocktails.
Paige, wherever she was, had the perfect figure for this kind of dressall curvy and voluptuous. Maria, ditto. Nicola was only slightly better endowed than Jess, but nothing rattled her.
Jess debated whether to get herself a drink or go in search of Paige. Maybe both. She gave the dress a final hitch and skirted the dance floor, heading toward the bar. On the way there she waved at the bride and her adoring husband, Mitch, who were talking to two other couples. The men were probably firefighters like Mitch. Rory's vintage gown was so her. It had a fitted bodice and a gathered tulle skirt, and instead of a veil she had opted for an elegant little white pillbox hat with netting. Jess had thought the above-the-elbow white gloves were a bit much, but Rory had said they'd be perfect and she was right.
"What will you have?" the bartender asked.
She was tempted to ask for Scotch, neat. "A glass of red wine," she said, since both the dress and the circumstances called for something a little more ladylike.
"I have cabernet and merlot, both excellent California wines."
She rested her forearms on the bar and leaned on them, shifting her weight to one foot and trying to wriggle the toes of the other. "The cabernet, I guess."
"Of course." The bartender eyed the front of her dress, and she quickly straightened.
While he poured the wine, she surveyed the bottles of Scotch lined up on a glass shelf. She should have gone with her first instinct. These were much better quality than the brands she could afford to stock at the Whiskey Sour.
"The merlot would have been a better choice," a deep male voice said over her shoulder.
She didn't have to turn around to know it was him, the man who'd been amused by her struggle with the strapless wonder. When she did turn to face him, her heart rate sped up. She had been wrong about the Mediterranean connection. His eyes were blue and he had no hint of an accent.
"You're an expert?" she asked.
He shrugged slightly. "I know a little. Would you like to dance?"
"Oh, thanks, but " How to graciously sidestep his offer? "My feet are killing me." Which was true. "And I'm not a very good dancer." Also true.
"I am," he said. "Just follow my lead."
"But my drink"
"It'll keep." His smile was self-assured without being overconfident, and Jess had the impression he wasn't accustomed to taking no for an answer. And before she had a chance to reinforce hers with a firm thanks-but-no-thanks, her hand was in his, and he was leading her onto the dance floor.
"Are you always this pushy?" she asked as he guided her into a simple box step.
"All I did was ask you to dance."
"And I said no."
He smiled again, a perfect smile that now held just a hint of arrogance. "And yet here you are."
His touch was light and he held her hand high as he moved them across the dance floor as gracefully as her ridiculously high-heeled shoes and lack of ability permitted. She rested her other hand on his shoulder, and she swore she could feel the dress slipping down her torso. She glanced down, relieved to see that her important parts, including the underwired push-up bra Rory had coerced her into buying, were still covered.
He lowered his head till his lips almost touched her ear. "You are too self-conscious," he said. "The dress isn't going anywhere."
He had that right. The dress was definitely not going anywhere with him. "I see your expertise with women extends beyond dancing."
He laughed, apparently unaffected by her sarcasm. "And you are a much better dancer than you let on."
Oh, please. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
"I'm sorry. Did that sound like a come-on? It was meant to be a compliment."
She wasn't used to getting compliments, or come-ons for that matter, so it was difficult to tell the difference. And how did he know what she was thinking?
"We should start over," he said. "My name is Michael.
The mother of the bride is a business associate of mine."
That surprised her. Rory's mother was an artist, so maybe he ran an art gallery or something. "I figured you worked here at the hotel."
His turn to be surprised. "What gave you that idea?"
"You weren't here earlier."
"Are you sure?"
Yes. I would have noticed. But he didn't need to know that. "I'm Jess," she said instead. "I'm one of Rory's bridesmaids."
Duh. As if he hadn't already figured that out.
In an abrupt move he drew her closer but only, it turned out, to maneuver them off their collision course with the bride's parents. Sam Borland and Copper Pennington were divorcedtwicebut according to Rory they were back on speaking terms. Judging by the way they were gazing at each other, oblivious to everything and everyone around them, they had more than talking in mind. She was delighted for Rory, of course, but more than a little envious, too. Jess heard from her mother only when she was broke and between loser boyfriends.
Roxanne Bennett's last plea for help had been six weeks ago, and Jess had sent her two hundred of her hard-earned dollars because that was easier than putting up with a barrage of desperate phone calls. Besides, by the time Roxanne had frittered away the money, she'd have yet another loser in her life and she'd be mooching from him.
Nicola and Jonathan swung by. Wow! Nic mouthed after doing an approving double take when she caught a glimpse of Jess's dancing partner.
Fortunately, Michael didn't seem to notice. "Do you live in San Francisco?" he asked. "I do. And you?"
"I'm a little north of the city, but I spend a lot of time here on business."
"I see." She wasn't used to making small talk when it wasn't required for work.
He had no trouble with it at all. "What do you do?"
"I own a little bar in the South of Market neighborhood."
That seemed to interest him more than she would have expected. "SoMa's an up-and-coming area. What's the name of your place?"
"The Whiskey Sour."
But he clearly didn't think it was, and she could tell he'd never heard of it. Problem was, neither had anyone else.
"It came with the name." And a small clientele. Emphasis on small. A reality she was determined to change as soon as she scraped together enough cash or convinced the bank to lend her some so she could renovate the place.
"How long have you been in business?"
"The bar has been there since my grandfather opened it in the fifties. I took over when he died two years ago."
"I'll have to come by for a drink sometime."
"Oh. Sure, that'd be great." She could use the business, but she could not picture this man, wearing this suit, sitting in her bar. No one but health inspectors and bill collectors ever showed up at the Whiskey Sour wearing a suit.
She caught a glimpse of Paige and her date entering the ballroom. Hard to miss Paige's purple gown. She and Andy were holding hands. Jess smiled. Paige insisted they were just friends, but those two were so close to hooking up, it wasn't even funny.
The band stopped playing and announced they were taking a short break.
Michael let her hand go, but kept his other hand on her back.
"Thank you." A little to her surprise, she meant it. Dancing with him had been.an experience.
"The pleasure was mine. Now, let's go see about that drink of yours."
"Oh, right." She wanted to tell him she had it under control, but that persistent hand was propelling her toward the bar.
Before they got there, Rory intercepted them and linked an arm with hers. "I see you've met Michael. I need to steal my maid of honor for a few minutes," she said to him. "It's time to toss the bouquet."
"I hope you'll bring her back," he said. "I promised her a glass of wine."
"Ten minutes, tops. Then she's all yours."
Oh, please. Like she would ever be all his. Or anybody's. But she let Rory lead her away, reminding herself that this was the last time she had to be a bridesmaid. Unless Paige got married againand given the way she and Andy were all over each other, that possibility was looking more likely by the minute.
Face it, Jess. If your friends don't stay married, your career as a bridesmaid could last forever. She loved these women they were the only real family she had but she'd be glad when they were all happily married and she could settle into being godmother and old maid Auntie Jess to everyone's kids. Those roles didn't require a reinforced bra and hazardously high heels.
"Where are we going?" she asked Rory.
"To the powder room. Until now, I haven't had a moment to chat with all of you."
Nicola, Paige and Maria were waiting for them. Maria was sitting on a chair, partially covered by a soft pink baby blanket and discreetly breastfeeding her baby girl. Finally, a practical use for a strapless gown.
Paige stood facing the mirror, and Nicola was trying to fix her hair. "What on earth were you doing to make such a mess of your updo?" she asked.
Paige didn't answer.
"There you go," Nicola said. "That's the best I can do without bobby pins and hairspray."
"She and Andy disappeared for a while," Jess said, feeling a bit mischievous. "I'm guessing they finally decided to get a room."
Paige swung around, hands on her hips. "We did not! We wanted some fresh air, so we went for walk. It's a beautiful autumn evening, but it's kind of windy."
Nicola laughed. "We must be having a hurricane. Too bad Andy didn't bring his camper. The two of you could have weathered the storm in there."
Not even Paige's professionally applied makeup could hide the deep pink flush that flashed across her face.
Maria rearranged her dress and lowered the blanket to reveal a sleeping baby. "Go easy on her, girls. She's in love. She just hasn't figured it out yet."
Paige's pink face flared red.
"I'd love to hear all the details," Rory said. "And I do mean all of them, but I don't want to keep everyone waiting. I just wanted to thank you gals for making my day so special. Everything's been perfect and I'm so grateful to all of you. Especially you, Jess. You've been the best maid of honor a bride could hope for."
Jess hugged her. "It's been fun." And she actually meant it. Rory's easygoing and slightly unorthodox approach to wedding planning had made the process a lot more fun than she'd expected it to be. "Did you manage to finish packing for your honeymoon?"
Excitement sparked in Rory's eyes. "We leave first thing in the morning."
"I still can't believe you're going to Disneyland," Nicola said. "And taking your stepdaughter."
The bride laughed. "It'll be perfect. Mitch said we could leave Miranda with his mother and go away on our own, but it didn't feel right. I'm not just married, I have an eight-year-old daughter. Taking a family honeymoon feels like the right thing to do, and Miranda is so excited."
Jess couldn't imagine ever meeting a man she could trust that way, never mind letting her guard down long enough to marry him, but to throw in a ready-made family on top of the bargain? No way. Not even an adorable little girl like Rory's stepdaughter. Then again, there was no chance any of this could happen to her. She hadn't even been on a date in two years, not since taking over the bar when her grandfather died. She'd been too busy working her butt off.
"I think it's wonderful," Maria said. "You're going to be such a great mom."
Paige nodded somewhat wistfully. "You already are a great mom, and you're so lucky to have such a terrific little girl."
Jess gave her a playful jab in the shoulder. "If you keep sneaking off with Andy and letting him mess up your hair like that, you might end up being a mom, too."
Everyone laughed at that, even a red-faced Paige.
Rory waved her bouquet of colorful gerbera daisies. "Okay. Time to find out who's next," she said as she herded them all into the corridor. Then she tapped Jess's shoulder. "Can we talk for a few seconds?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"Let's make sure Paige catches my bouquet."
"This is just a tradition based on some crazy superstition. Catching it doesn't guarantee a wedding." Although come to think of it, Rory had caught Nic's bouquet last fall, and look at her now.
"It's symbolic, and it definitely seems to be Paige's turn, don't you think?"
The only thing Jess knew for sure was that it wasn't hers. "How am I supposed to make sure she catches it?"
"There aren't that many single women here, and the only two you really have to watch out for are Mitch's cousins. Those two little brats have actually made a bet on which of them will snag it."