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Natalie Thompson felt a little woozy. In fact, she felt a lot woozy.
Wouldn't it be just ducky if the cake artist collapsed on top of a vastly expensive five-layer wedding cake?
"Not now, not now," she whispered desperately, blowing a strand of blond bangs out of her eyes. The chatter of wedding guests filing into the reception warned her to hurry.
Her fingers trembled as she made one last adjustment to the glittering cake topper. As a group of classy wedding planners, she and her best friends/coworkers, collectively known as the Wedding Belles, took pride in making other women's dreams come true. Right now her fondest dream was to remain upright for another ten minutes.
The air in front of her eyes danced with black spots. Ten minutes might be pushing it.
Why, oh why, hadn't she taken time to eat something? With all the activity of setting up for today's wedding, she'd used up every drop of sugar in her body. Now her insulin had kicked in, expecting to be balanced out with a meal.
Diabetes, the bane of her existence since she was seven, could be so unforgiving.
A mountain of sugar in front of her and she dare not snitch a bite lest she destroy the picture-perfect confection that had taken days to create. Not that she was supposed to eat sugar in the first place.
Breath a bit short, she stepped back to survey the table. This was the first Christmas wedding of the season and, in keeping with the holiday theme, the cake sat on a raised pedestal beneath a beribboned archway of twinkling silver, blue and white snowflake lights. Beneath them the cake's frosting glistened like new-fallen snow.
Draping the table in heavy white satin with wide bluebows and tiny silver bells tucked up at the corners had been Serena's latest creation, an idea the Belles' dress designer had brought back from the bridal show in Seattle. Natalie glanced around to find the cool, elegant blonde taking one last survey of the ballroom. Serena had also brought back something else from the bridal fair and subsequent plane crash that had scared them all to death. She'd brought back a rather wild and dangerous pilot, Kane Wiley, who had looked ready to eat her up like the last bite of creamy vanilla cheesecake.
Ah, yes. Cheesecake. Sugar. Food. Her job and her dilemma.
Everything was ready for the reception, right down to the fruit circling the dark-chocolate groom's cake. She'd spent hours dipping and decorating those strawberries to resemble tiny tuxedos. Nobody, not even her, was going to mess that up before the bride arrived. No matter how badly her knees wobbled.
"Natalie, are you okay? You look funny." The speaker was Regina O'Ryan, Natalie's good friend and the Wedding Belles' exceptionally gifted photographer. Though she always complained about her generous hips and extra ten pounds, Regina looked great these days. Glowing, happy, fulfilled. Marriage to her very own Mr. Right had done that for the lovely brunette.
People all around Natalie were falling in love faster than she could pipe leaves onto a birthday cake. Natalie was glad for them, especially Regina after all she'd been through. Truly she was. Love was great until it let you down.
A too familiar pang of bitterness pinched the center of her chest. Right now was not the time to remember. It was also not the time to slither to the gleaming tiled floor like butter-cream frosting on a July day.
She waved Regina away. The action took more effort that she'd like.
"Insulin crash. No biggie." All Natalie's friends knew about her unpredictable diabetic condition and fretted appropriately. She appreciated it, really she did, but she and Regina were both too busy at the moment to deal with her temperamental endocrine system. "The bride and groom cometh. Better get moving."
Regina glanced in the direction of the arched doorway, and her soft brown eyes widened. "Eek. Can't miss the grand entrance." She pointed at the fruit display across the room. "Go eat something. Now."
Regina snapped one more shot of the bride's table and then hurried off, red heels clicking on white tile.
Eat something. Good advice. That's exactly what Natalie had to do.
Oh, for a mouthful of richly frosted, sweet buttery cake. But she'd long ago come to grips with the fact that she could have her cake but she couldn't eat it. Which was exactly why she was a cake artist, or cake fairy as she preferred to be called.
On the opposite side of the grand ballroom, rows and rows of fruit cascaded around a tiered table. Strawberries, grapes, melon, pineapple all beckoned. The table looked miles away, but fruit was one thing she could snitch without it being noticed. She edged in that direction, the wobble in her knees more pronounced. Usually careful about her diet, she'd been running late after the twins' babysitter had canceled at the last minute, a victim of the evil twenty-four-hour virus. With the scramble to get the girls dressed and driven to day care, she simply had not had time to think of food.
But, boy, was she thinking about it now. A cluster of big juicy green grapes practically screamed her name. Just as she reached for it, a male voice stopped her.
Like a kid caught stealing candy, she yanked her hand away and spun around. The room tilted.
"Hey." A pair of powerful hands gripped her upper arms. "Steady, there. Are you okay? Am I that much of a surprise?"
Surprise? What was he talking about? She blinked up at the expensive-smelling guest. He was tall, but then everyone was tall in her world. At just under five feet, she was vertically challenged. The only people shorter were her eight-year-old daughters.
"Natalie?" The man's voice reminded her of someone, but she was zoning out. She hated zoning out, but that was the price she sometimes paid when her sugar levels plummeted. And were they ever plummeting! Any minute now she'd slide to the floor and make a spectacle of herself.
"Fruit," she whispered, knowing she'd feel like an idiot later, but right now she had to have food. "Diabetes."
The stranger didn't hesitate. With rapid efficiency, he slid two pieces of the sweetest, most heavenly melon between her lips. Then, arm around her waist, he guided her onto a chair against the wall. If she hadn't felt so awful, she might have enjoyed having a man take such good care of her again.
Well, on second thought, maybe not. The one thing in her life she'd sworn never to do again was depend on anyone, especially a man, to take care of her. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say. Not that Justin hadn't loved her. That was the problem. He'd loved her too much. So much that she'd depended on him for every single thing.
A stab of loss penetrated the fog of diabetes.
"I'd forgotten you're a diabetic," the deep gentle voice rumbled as he poked more fruit into her mouth. The brush of manly fingers against her lips would have been erotic in another setting.
He'd forgotten? Who was this guy?
She tried to look at him, but her eyes wouldn't open.
She chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, grateful to whomever he was.
In the background, the reception was in full swing, the sound muffled by the roaring in her head. The DJ announced the first dance, and a sexy version of "Let's Get It On" filled the air.
Natalie thought it an odd choice for the first dance. If she were the one getting married, she'd have chosen something sentimental and romantic. But then, she was never getting married again. Mr. Right came along only once if a girl was really lucky. She'd had her chance and look how that had turned out.
"Natalie," her rescuer said, tapping at her lips. "One more bite."
Like an obedient bird, she opened her mouth. Her heart wasn't racing quite as fast now and her head had begun to clear.
The fructose was doing its job.
She raised her eyelids, blinked them clear. Concerned eyes as warm and rich as chocolate ganache stared back. Familiar eyes. Familiar face. Dressed in a dark suit, he crouched in front of her, one hand balancing a plate of fruit on a muscular thigh.
Natalie's heart thumped once, hard.
"Cooper?" she gasped. "What are you doing here? Is that really you?"
Dr. Cooper Sullivan flashed the wide, sexy grin that had stolen the hearts of any number of coeds in college. "It was me a few minutes ago when I looked in the mirror."
"But you're in California." She sat up straight, shaking the cobwebs out of her head.
Cooper looked around, mouth quirked. "I am?"
"Well, you're obviously here, but I mean " She was making a total idiot of herself. That's what she'd meant. But then, she could always blame the sugar drop. The truth was, she hadn't seen the man in years, but articulating that sentiment didn't seem possible at the moment.
Cooper let her off the hook. "Right now I'm attending a colleague's wedding. Mutual friends, perhaps?"
"No, no. Clients. I'm working." She nodded toward the bride's table where a gorgeous redhead in ice-blue satin served wedding cake to a parade of guests. "Only, I should have been gone by now. The cake fairy does her job and gets out of the way. Usually."
One of Cooper's dark, slashing eyebrows hiked. "Cake fairy?"
She nodded, gaining strength and clarity by the moment. No matter how long she dealt with diabetes, she was always amazed at how quickly she could crash and recover. "I design cakes for a local wedding planner, the Wedding Belles."
She was good at it, too. She could turn any idea into a fabulous cake. Justin had laughed when she'd taken up cake design but she thanked God every day she had. Otherwise, she and the twins would be sponging off relatives. She shivered at the thought. Even now finances were incredibly tight.
"Feeling better?" Cooper pushed to his feet and towered over her.
"I am. Thanks." Emitting a shaky breath, she ran a hand across her forehead. "I know better than to scrimp on lunch. But sometimes I can slide by."
"Not today. You were as white as the bride's dress." He sat down in the chair next to her as though he was in no hurry to join the rest of the wedding guests. "Does Justin know about these episodes?"
Misery swept through her. He didn't know. Cooper Sullivan had been Justin's friend and closest competitor all through college and medical school but they'd gone their separate ways after graduation. Actually, after Justin and Natalie married. More than ten years had passed since she'd last seen the darkly handsome doctor. A lot can happen in ten years.
"Oh, Cooper." Natalie reached for his hand to soften the coming blow. "Justin died."
As a medical doctor, he must have said or heard those words dozens of times, but he jerked back, shocked. "Died? How? When? Natalie, no."
Even after all this time, the grief could sometimes slam into her like a shark attack, fierce, sharp, tearing. When it did, she replaced the pain with anger. If he'd had any sense, if he'd loved her and the twins enough, Justin would still be here.
"Two years ago. A motorcycle accident."
No use going into the horrifying details. When a motorcycle takes on an eighteen-wheeler, the motorcycle loses every time.
"God," he said and leaned back against the wall to run both hands through the sides of stylishly groomed black hair. "Nat, I am so sorry. Are you okay? You should have called me."
She didn't bring up the fact that he had been the one to fade out of their lives when he'd moved to California to accept a residency training program at USC. She also didn't mention the competition between him and Justin, a competition that had extended from the classroom to the sporting arena and finally to a bid for her affections. When she'd chosen Justin, their friendship had died out. Natalie was smart enough to realize it had never been her whom Cooper had wanted. His real desire had been the thrill of victory.
"The girls and I are fine, Cooper. It's been hard, losing Justin, making a life without him, but we're managing." In truth, she was barely staying afloat.
"The girls?" Still shocked, his handsome face registered bewilderment.
He had no way of knowing Justin had left her with the most amazing daughters. Without them to care for, she might have given in to the awful grief and simply disappeared.
"Twins. Rose and Lily. They're eight now."
"Twins. Amazing." He shook his head, soft smile pensive. "Old Justin has two little girls. I'd like to meet them."
Natalie carefully sidestepped the subtle hint. "What about you? What are you doing back in Boston after all this time?"