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Jenny Watson knew a bad idea when she heard one.
"It's not a date," she tartly informed her best friend, Emily Kiley, kicking off her shoes and curling one jean-clad leg beneath her on Emily's bed.
Emily called from the depths of her closet. "Just because he doesn't call it a date, doesn't mean you can't look your best."
"He's my boss. And it's a business function."
"It's a wedding."
"A Texas Cattleman's Club wedding," Jenny corrected. "And he was invited in his capacity as Interim President."
Emily emerged from the closet carrying something made of dark burgundy chiffon. "I was thinking this one." She draped the dress along her body, revealing a one-shoulder, sleeveless creation with a wide-fitted waist, and a two-layer, A-line skirt that dropped to midthigh.
"Ha, ha," Jenny mocked, leaning back against the oak headboard.
Emily knew full well that Jenny would never touch a style that was so off-the-runway sophisticated, and she'd definitely never wear a color that bold.
"It'll look great with an updo." Emily swirled around to the corners of the room as if she was waltzing. "You can borrow my black rhinestone sandals. And I've got those fabulous teardrop earrings and the matching necklace. The diamonds are synthetic, but there's no way to tell."
"I'm not wearing that dress," Jenny insisted.
"Do you need me to write you a list?"
"Come on," Emily cajoled. "Live a little, girl. You'll look gorgeous, and Mitch will absolutely sit up and take notice."
"I'll look foolish." Jenny wasn't showing up in front of her friends and neighbors in Royal, Texas, looking like some kind of Manhattan diva. "There's nothing wrong with my black dress."
It was her perennial favoritea sleeveless, square-necked jersey knit that flowed to her knees. She combined it with a short, sheer black cover that fastened at her throat. It was the perfect combination of classic and chic.
"And how many times has Mitch Hayward seen you in that?"
"A couple," Jenny admitted, seeing no need to do the math.
Mitch didn't care what she wore. He wanted an uncomplicated woman on his arm, someone to help him work the event. Her boss liked to keep tabs on the members of the Texas Cattleman's Club. He prided himself on recalling details of everyone's lives, and Jenny knew she was a big help in that department.
"You've had a crush on him since you were twelve," Emily pointed out.
"'Crush' being the operative word," Jenny put in. And it had been over a long time ago. "The man left town when I was only sixteen."
Quarterback Mitch Hayward had gone to college in Dallas on a full football scholarship. He'd come back to work in Royal for the first two summers. But after that, his successful sports career had kept him on the road. Up until last year, when a shoulder injury had brought him back home.
"He's been back for twelve months," Emily pointed out.
"That long?" Jenny plucked at the bedspread, pretending she didn't remember the exact date, the exact hour, the exact minute Mitch Hayward had returned to Royal. "I guess time flies."
Emily plunked down on the bed beside her. "You are such a bad liar."
Jenny heaved a sigh, feeling the need to inject some reality into the situation. "I am not going to make a fool of myself by dressing up for Mitch."
"Then dress up for Rick Pruitt and Sadie Price." Emily referred to the bride and groom. Rick was a longtime member of the Texas Cattleman's Club and well respected throughout the region.
"Like they're going to care what I'm wearing," said Jenny.
Since Rick had rushed off to Houston in July to bring Sadie and their two-year-old twins back home to Royal, the ecstatic couple had eyes only for each other.
Emily reached out to grasp Jenny's forearm, her voice taking on a tone of urgency. "It's do or die, Jen."
Talk about melodramatic. "Do or die, what?"
"I've watched you pine away over him for a year now. Either make a play for Mitch, or start dating other guys."
"I'm not pining away."
But as Emily stated the bald truth, Jenny felt her chest tighten and her stomach contract with apprehension. All year long, she'd tried desperately to ignore her attraction to Mitch, telling herself it was a childhood crush that she was long since over.
"You're about to turn thirty," said Emily.
"So are you."
"That's right. And I have a plan."
"A plan for turning thirty?"
"A plan for my life," said Emily, her gaze taking on a dreamy quality and drifting to the window behind Jenny. "If I don't meet a man, the man
" Then she frowned, and her eyes narrowed. "Well, at least a man who might be the man, by my birthday next month, I'm going to have a baby anyway."
Jenny straightened in shock. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "A single mom? Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea"
"I want children."
"I know from experience how bad that can turn out."
"We're not talking about your childhood." Emily glanced at her watch and hopped up from the bed. "In fact, we're still talking about the wedding tonight. I can tell you, if I had a thing for a guy like Mitch, and if that guy was anywhere within a hundred miles of here, I'd damn well be doing something about it."
"You would not."
"I would." Emily nodded decisively. "Come on, Jen. What's the risk? He doesn't notice, no harm done. You simply showed up to some friends' wedding in a nice dress. But if he notices, it's a whole new ball game."
"If he doesn't notice," Jenny began, telling herself it was an academic argument, since she wasn't really considering the dress, "then it's game over."
Compassion rose in Emily's blue eyes. "If he doesn't notice you in this, it was game over anyway. Wouldn't you rather know?"
Jenny started to shake her head, but then she stopped. Did she truly want to spend the next year, or two, or three, longing for a man who wasn't remotely interested in her? Would she rather keep the fantasy alive, or would she rather face the truth, no matter how hurtful?
"If he's not into you, Jen, then you can move on. You have to move on."
Jenny catalogued her options, considering every angle as dispassionately as humanly possible. But, despite her efforts to be strictly analytical, her emotions crowded in. Her heart rate increased, heat prickling her skin, as she silently admitted Emily's advice had merit.
Perhaps it truly was now or never.
"Be a woman about it," said Emily, holding the dress forward, an expression of hopeful encouragement in her eyes. Jenny steeled her nerves.
She took a bracing breath and rose from the bed, snatching the dress from Emily's grasp. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
"Shower first," cautioned Emily, taking back the dress. "And shave your legs. We have exactly four hours to completely make you over."
Emily gave her a gentle shove toward the bathroom. "Oh, yes, you are."
By the time Emily had styled Jenny's hair, applied her makeup, helped her into the dress and clipped on some jewelry, Jenny was a nervous wreck. Emily had refused to let her look in the mirror until the process was complete, and Jenny now stood in the middle of the bedroom balancing on dainty, high-heeled sandals. The fancy dress rustled against her thighs. Her face was tight with carefully applied makeup. And she had walked through a mist of Emily's most expensive perfume.
Finally, Emily stood back to survey her. "You ready?"
"I've been ready for three hours."
Emily's grin went from ear to ear. "You look amazing."
"I'm going to fall off the shoes."
"No, you won't."
"I hate wearing my contacts."
"Buck up. This is going to be worth it."
"The black dress would have been perfectly fine."
"The black dress wouldn't have changed your life."
Jenny frowned at her friend. Nobody's life was getting changed tonight. Mitch wasn't going to spy her from across the Texas Cattleman's Club hall, realize he'd never seen the real Jenny before and rush to pull her into his arms.
Never going to happen. Which was depressing.
After tonight, she'd never be able to delude herself again.
"Here we go," said Emily, pulling her walk-in closet door closed to line up the full-length mirror.
Jenny looked into the mirror. Her eyes focused, and she blinked in astonishment.
The woman staring back didn't look anything like her.
"Something's wrong," she said to Emily.
"That's not me."
Emily laughed. "That most certainly is you."
Jenny shifted experimentally. The sandals elongated her calves, tanned from swimming in the lake all summer. Her neck looked longer than usual, her arms more graceful, and the updo of her thick strawberry blond hair was complemented by Emily's glamorous earrings. The necklace winked at her, while her artificially lengthened lashes blinked heavily over her green eyes.
The neck of the dress made the most of her cleavage. And her bare shoulder felt decadently sexy. For some reason, her waist seemed narrower than usual. Maybe it was the full skirt, or the way the cut of the bodice accentuated her breasts.
Nervous sweat popped out on her brow. "I can't go out like this."
"What? Afraid you'll stop traffic?"
"Afraid I'll get propositioned."
"Good grief. You look like a movie star, not a hooker."
"I feel like a hooker."
"Yeah? Tell me, what does a hooker feel like?" Emily pulled a small jeweled purse out of her top drawer and snagged Jenny's bag from where she'd dropped it on the bay window's padded bench seat.
"This isn't funny." Panic began to swell in Jenny.
The makeover was all fine and good as a fantasy, but there was no way she could leave Emily's house looking like this. The gossip would swirl around Royal for months to come.
How could she have let this happen?
How could she have been so foolish?
She swallowed. "We have to take it off."
"There's no time."
"If you don't leave now, the bride will beat you to the church." Emily stuffed the vital contents of Jenny's bag into the jeweled clutch.
"I'm serious, Em."
"So am I." Emily pressed the purse into Jenny's hand and held out her car keys. "You gotta go."
"You want to be late?"
"Of course not." Jenny prided herself on her meticulous punctuality. And even if she didn't, she'd never insult such a respected TCC member by rushing in at the last minute for his wedding.
Emily gave her a gentle shove toward the door. "Have a great time, Cinderella."
Mitch Hayward was going to be late. Of all the days, of all the events, of all the stupid, stupid fiascos, it had to be this. At this rate, Rick and Sadie would be standing under the Leadership, Justice and Peace plaque at the Texas Cattleman's Club clubhouse with a preacher pronouncing them man and wife, by the time Mitch made it into the parking lot.
He zipped past the diner in his vintage red Corvette and geared down for the corner at River Road, his back tires breaking loose against the hot asphalt. But he stomped defiantly on the gas pedal, muscled the car to head straight and prayed that Officer Brendall wasn't out on traffic patrol at this particular moment.
The roof of the clubhouse came into view in the distance
amongst the oak trees, at the same time as he spotted a long white limousine on the road in front of him. It had to be Sadie and her bridesmaids. He geared down and put the pedal to the floor, pulling around the limousine, hoping against hope that Sadie would forgive him for the stunt.
He screeched to a halt in the clubhouse lot, parking illegally before springing from the car and running up the stairs.
His assistant, Jenny Watson, was waiting by the door to the foyer.
He was conscious of a flash of bold burgundy, before snagging her arm and towing her toward the club lounge entrance.
"What happened?" she rasped, trotting to keep up with him.
"A flock of flamingos," he growled, scanning the rows of folding chairs for vacancies.
He spotted a pair at the opposite side of the flower-and-candle-bedecked room, and he beelined for them.
"Those plastic flamingos for the charity fundraiser," he whispered to her, ignoring the censorious stares sent his way by the Texas Cattleman's Club members assembled for the wedding. "The whole flock was planted on my front lawn."
He plunked Jenny into a chair and seated himself, just as the piano music changed, and all heads turned to watch the first bridesmaid start her way down the aisle.
The attendants were pretty in pale lilac dresses, but Sadie and Rick's two-year-old twin daughters all but stole the show. They were dressed identically in ivory lace dresses, accented with lilac ribbons and bows. They had flowers braided into their hair, and they dutifully dropped multicolored handfuls of rose petals from their baskets as they walked.
Then the pianist began the wedding march, and the guests rose as Sadie appeared in a stunning white gown, flowers woven into her hair, and a tremulous smile on her face as she approached Rick. Mitch was about as far from a romantic as a guy could get, but even he couldn't help feeling a warm glow for the couple who had been through so much, were so obviously in love and were about to create a family with their two young daughters.
As the preacher pronounced the couple man and wife, the guests spontaneously burst into applause. And by the time Rick kissed his bride, most of the women, and even some of the men, were wiping misty eyes while they smiled with pure joy. Camera flashes went off and Rick and Sadie each picked up one of their daughters to make their way back down the aisle.
"That was lovely," said Jenny, tucking her tissue back into her compact purse.
"You can't help but be happy for them," Mitch replied.
Then she pressed an elbow into his ribs. "Did the game go into overtime or something?"
"Sorry," he apologized, his mind going back to the debacle of getting out of his driveway.
Truth was, he had been further delayed when a football buddy, Jeffrey Porter, his teammate on the Texas Tigers, had called on the road from Chicago. Jeffrey's girlfriend of two years had caught him cheating and abruptly ended the relationship.
Mitch was intimately familiar with the temptation of beautiful women when a guy was on the road with the team. There was never a shortage of dates. It was one of the reasons Mitch had always avoided serious romantic relationships. If he couldn't trust himself to be faithful, he wasn't going to make any promises to anyone.
It was probably past time someone called Jeffrey on his behavior. Quite frankly, with the way his attention strayed, Mitch was surprised his buddy hadn't been caught long before this. Still, he'd felt duty bound to sympathize with the wide receiver.
"What happened?" Jenny asked as the front rows of guests began surging down the aisle, following the wedding party out into the foyer.