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Conversation and laughter surrounded Jayne Cavendish. Sitting at a small table tucked away in a corner of the Victorian Tea House, she glanced around the room.
Pairs of women sat at tables nestled among potted plants and curio cabinets filled with an eclectic collection of teacups and saucers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time at one of San Diego's favorite Old Town establishments. Everyone but her.
She stared at her steaming cup of Earl Gray, wishing she could conjure up one of her three best friends. She missed Alex, Molly and Serena so much.
Sure, they kept in touch via phone calls, texting and Facebook. Twitter came in handy, too. Alex jetted back from Las Vegas when she could, and Molly would be returning once her and Linc's dream house was built and his business moved here, but it wasn't the same as all four of them living in San Diego, dishing face-to-face, getting pedicures and going to tea.
Jayne sank in her chair, feeling as buoyant as a deflated hot air balloon.
Maybe coming to the teahouse this Saturday afternoon hadn't been such a good idea. She remembered her first visit, when her then-fiancé's sisters had thrown Jayne a bridal shower. That 'welcome to the family' party seemed like years ago, even though it had been only months.
So much had changed since then. She touched the bare ring finger on her left hand. So much still hadn't changed.
At least not for her.
Jayne looked down at the silver-rimmed plate containing two golden-brown scones and a dollop of honey butter.
Too bad she wasn't hungry.
Uh-oh. If she weren't careful she'd soon be hosting a pity party for herself. Jayne sipped her tea to clear her head.
No sense wallowing in the past.
Her teacup clinked against the saucer as she placed it on the table.
So what if memories of her bridal shower with the Strickland sisters were bittersweet? Jayne had other memories, good memories, of subsequent visits here with Alex, Molly and Serena. Her three friends might not be related to Jayne by blood, but she considered them the sisters of her heart. Nothing, not distance or their marriages, would ever change that.
Determined to make peace with the present and enjoy herself, Jayne removed a library book—the latest offering from a top personal finance guru—from her purse. She opened it to her bookmark: a picturesque postcard with a palm tree arcing over a crescent of sugar-white sand and turquoise water stretching all the way to the horizon.
A perfect place for a honeymoon, she thought with a twinge of regret.
So what if things hadn't turned out with Rich Strickland as she'd planned? Because of what had happened—er, hadn't happened—her three best friends had found the loves of their lives. Jayne could never regret the end of her engagement and the wild weekend with her friends in Las Vegas afterward that had brought romance and so much happiness to the three people who mattered most in her life.
She flipped over the postcard she'd received two months ago and reread Serena's loopy, almost whimsical handwriting.
Having a great time! This trip was the perfect way to celebrate Jonas' election victory and recoup from campaigning! As soon as we're home you must come to Las Vegas! I want to see you! Alex and Molly want to see you, too! Hope all is well! Miss you! Love, Serena and Jonas
The number of exclamation points brought a smile to Jayne's lips. Serena lived life as if an exclamation point belonged after everything she did, whether at work or play, but she'd found her center with Jonas Benjamin, the newly elected mayor of Las Vegas. He absolutely adored his wife.
As soon as we're home you must come to Las Vegas!
Jayne wanted to see her friends, but she'd been putting off their invitations to visit. Venturing back to the neon-lit city, with its monstrous resorts and hundred-degree-plus temperatures, held little appeal and way too many memories of the time right after the breakup. Hmmm, maybe she could talk them into coming to San Diego instead. Her friends could bring their husbands and show the three men what their lives here had used to be like.
A life Jayne was still living.
She placed the postcard next to the plate of scones on the table and adjusted the book in her hands. Happily living, she reminded herself, even if her dreams had been put on hold and she was alone. Again.
She focused on the page, mentally taking notes on fresh ideas that might help the clients she counseled at the debt management center where she worked. No wonder the book had hit the bestsellers' list. The author had some great ideas for getting one's finances under control.
Several minutes later, the noise level in the teahouse increased exponentially, as if a crowd had entered all at once.
She looked up from the book, glanced behind her and saw a large group of women standing around and holding presents.
Her gaze collided with someone she recognized—Savannah Strickland, her ex-fiancé's youngest sister. A look of disbelief filled Savannah's hazel eyes before she turned away.
Was this a birthday party? Perhaps a baby shower for Grace, the oldest sister? Her third child must be due soon.
Curious, Jayne peeked at the colorfully wrapped presents. No bunnies. No duckies. No baby carriages. A few umbrellas, though.
Rich's other sister, Betsy, noticed Jayne, gasped and elbowed her twin, Becca. Both turned bright pink.
Jayne didn't understand their embarrassment. Sure this was a little awkward, considering what their brother had done to her, but his sisters weren't to blame for his…
There she was.
Every single one of Jayne's nerve-endings stood at attention with a combination of shock and horror.
The other woman.
The reason Jayne was still single and her three friends were now married.
She forced her gaping mouth closed.
Jayne had only seen the woman once. At Rich's apartment. Days before their wedding. A living, breathing Barbie doll in lingerie.
Today, the woman's modest Wedgwood-blue dress and smart cap-sleeved white jacket were one hundred and eighty degrees from the black push-up bra with a bow at the center and the lace-trimmed leggings she'd worn at Rich's place. The pristine white headband securing long, straightened blonde
locks was a far cry from the bed-tousled hair that had left no room for misinterpreting what had been going on between two consenting adults.
But it was her.
The woman's flushed cheeks were exactly the same.
And so were Jayne's feelings of betrayal.
Not a baby shower, she realized, stricken to the heart. A wedding shower.
Rich was getting married, and his sisters were throwing a bridal shower for the woman their brother had cheated on her with.
Jayne struggled to breathe.
Look away, she told herself. But, like a moth drawn to a flame, Jayne couldn't.
The scene was surreal and eerily familiar. A lot like her own bridal shower.
Tears stung her eyes. A lump formed in her throat.
How could his sisters bring her here? It was as if Jayne had never existed in their lives. As if she hadn't spent every Sunday having brunch at their parents' house or helped paint Grace's kids' bedrooms or a hundred other things Jayne had done with them.
Having him betray her was one thing—but his entire family, too?
Her stomach roiled. Jayne thought she might be sick.
Self-preservation instincts kicked in. Get out. Now.
She shoved her book into her purse, ripped out a twenty-dollar bill from her wallet and tossed the money on the table. The amount was double the cost of her tea and scones, but for once she didn't care about wasting a few dollars.
Someone called her name.
Not someone, but Grace, Rich's oldest sister—the one person in his family who'd called after the breakup to see how Jayne was faring.
Torn between what she wanted to do and what she should do, she looked over to see a very pregnant Grace. The concern in her eyes—eyes the same color and shape as Rich's—pricked Jayne's heart. She gave her almost-sister-in-law a pained, hesitant smile. That was all she could manage at the moment.
Grace moved awkwardly through the crowded room toward her.
The air rushed from Jayne's lungs.
She had no idea what Grace wanted, but only one thing, one horrible thought, sprang to mind. No way could Jayne allow herself to be introduced to that woman. The other woman. The future Mrs. Rich Strickland.
A potent dose of anxiety fueled Jayne's already desperate panic. She mouthed I'm sorry to the fast approaching Grace, turned and fled.
The next day, Grace Strickland Cooper stood at the sink in her parents' kitchen after her family's weekly get-together for Sunday brunch. "I need a favor."
Must be his turn to wash. Tristan MacGregor stopped drying a saucepan and stared into the familiar brown eyes of his best friend's oldest sister. "If you leave your husband and two and three-quarter kids and run away with me, I'll do anything you ask."
Grace motioned with wet hands to her bulging baby-filled stomach. "Oh, yes. I'm exactly what an adventurous photo-journalist wants to wake up next to every morning."
"You're a beautiful woman. Any man would want to wake up next to you."
Her eyes narrowed. "I bet you say that to all the girls, pregnant or not."
"I will neither confirm nor deny." He hung the saucepan on one of the pot rack's hooks. "Though I usually try to stay away from the pregnant ones."
She shook her head. "You never change, MacGregor."
He flashed her his most charming grin. "But you still love me."
"In your dreams."
Tristan winked. "I'll take what I can get."
Laughing, she rinsed out a soapy pot. "I'm sure you have no problem getting whatever you want. You never did."
That had been true. At least until recently.
He avoided serious relationships, but he liked having fun. Lately he'd found himself comparing the women he met to an unattainable ideal. That was severely limiting his fun.
He picked up the towel and dried a frying pan. "So what do you need? Want me to take over washing?"
"No." She glanced around, as if to make sure they were still alone. "I saw Jayne Cavendish yesterday."
Hearing the name of Rich's ex-fiancée jolted Tristan from the inside out. He nearly dropped the pan. A big no-no, considering Mrs. Strickland's year-old marble countertops.
Jayne. His ideal woman…
A million questions sprang to mind. Not one could he ask. "Where?"
"She was at the teahouse where we had Deidre's shower. It was the same place we took Jayne, which must have made her feel even worse."
For Rich's sake Tristan had tried not to think about Jayne Cavendish, but she'd invaded his thoughts and taken over his dreams. She'd become the woman he measured all others against. He even carried her picture in his wallet.
"We were so embarrassed. I'd forgotten how much she liked the place," Grace continued. "Anyway, Jayne made a beeline for the exit before I could reach her."
"Do you blame her?" His words came out too harshly, given his role in the breakup.
"Not at all." Grace frowned. "I love my brother, but he acted like a complete jerk with Jayne. Rich should have broken off the engagement, not led her on the way he did after he met Deidre."
"But he didn't, and Jayne's the one who's suffered."
"Suffered?" Tristan hung the frying pan on a hook. "She should be relieved she didn't get married. Rich might be my best friend, but Jayne's better off without him."
"I call it as I see it." Grace dried her hands with a dishtowel, rummaged through her purse and handed him a postcard. "Jayne was in such a hurry to leave she forgot this at her table. I thought you could return it and check if she's doing okay."
Tristan's heart pounded as if he'd stumbled across the perfect shot. No lighting or camera adjustment needed. Just point and click.
He'd wanted to see Jayne for months now, but two reasons kept him away: his travel schedule, and Rich. Speaking of which…
"Just call her," Tristan said.
"I can't," Grace admitted. "Deidre's feeling very insecure right now."
Not his problem. Rich had been so mad at Tristan for breaking his engagement. He didn't want to go through that again.
He returned the postcard to Grace. "Sorry, but I'm not sneaking behind Rich's back to do this."
"You wouldn't be sneaking behind his back." Grace shoved the postcard into Tristan's hand. "I figured there must be some kind of guy code you two follow, so I asked him about it when he arrived this morning."
"He's okay if I see Jayne?"
"Better you than me."
"Because I'm not family?"
Grace flushed. "You've been friends with my brother since you were toddlers. You're family. But Deidre really freaked out yesterday, so I told her I wouldn't have any contact with Jayne. There's no harm in you returning the postcard. Deidre won't feel as threatened if she finds out you saw Jayne. Everyone knows you didn't like her."
No one had a clue how Tristan felt about Jayne. "She and Rich weren't right for each other."
Staring at the soapy water in the sink, Grace shrugged. "Rich may have put Jayne behind him, but I can't forget about her and stop caring that easily."
"You didn't know her long."
"Length of time doesn't matter. She was going to be my sister-in-law and the baby's godmother. She even painted the kids' rooms for me. I can't help but think about her every time I'm in there." Grace placed her hands on her belly. Worry filled her eyes. "And when I saw Jayne yesterday, she seemed…"
Tristan's shoulder muscles knotted. "What?"
"Different," Grace said. "Jayne's lost weight. She's cut her hair short. But most of all she looked so sad. I guess that's normal under the circumstances. It's only been a few months since the breakup."
Seven months, one week and four days, Tristan thought.
"She probably shouldn't look like her cheerful self after everything that happened, but I can't help but worry about her." Grace drew her brows together. "Her parents are dead. She has no siblings. Jayne has no one to look out for her except her three best friends, and they weren't with her yesterday. She needs somebody, but it can't be me."
Rich's oldest sister had been Tristan's first crush years ago, but at this moment he loved Grace more than he ever had back when he'd been a kid. Her thoughtfulness had provided him with a valid reason to see Jayne Cavendish again. Not only a reason, but also permission from Rich.
Tristan could see if his attraction for Jayne was real or if he'd built her up in his mind because she was off-limits. He clutched the postcard as if it were a ticket to Shangri-la, even though his visit would probably be nothing more than a reality check for him.
"Stop worrying." He squeezed Grace's shoulder. "I'll head over there this afternoon, return the postcard and find out exactly how Jayne's doing."
"Thank you." Grace hugged him. Well, as much as she could hug given her beachball-sized belly. "And if you happen to know any nice single guys you could introduce her to…"