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"I'll go to the bridal show," Serena James announced.
"I've always wanted to visit Seattle."
Not that she cared where she went as long as she could get out of town.
Four of her coworkers at The Wedding Belles, a Boston-based full-service wedding planning company, turned surprised looks in her direction. Oops. Serena tried not to grimace. Had she sounded too enthusiastic for a woman with a devoted boyfriend?
"That is, if no one else wants to go," she added with a forced smile.
"Well, darlin'," Belle Mackenzie, owner of The Wedding Belles, purred in her distinct Southern drawl. A beautiful woman with coiffed silver hair and a generous glossed smile, she gave the best hugs this side of the Mason-Dixon line. "That's sweet of you to offer. We do need a little positive publicity after the Vandiver wedding cancellation fiasco, and the show's sponsors would be delighted to have one of the country's up-and-coming wedding dress designers fill in at the last moment."
This was going to work. Satisfaction filled Serena.
"But you usually avoid bridal shows," Belle continued. "Are you sure about this with all you have going on?"
"I'm sure," Serena answered, hoping to sound willing but not desperate. "Besides, there really isn't anyone else."
Belle drummed her French-manicured nails on the mahogany table. "That's true. We all seem to have an extra serving or two on our plates."
"Well, whoever goes to Seattle" Callie Underwood, florist extraordinaire, brushed a lock of dark blond hair off her face "I want them to take my wedding gown to the show."
The other women gasped.
"You're getting married in just a few weeks," Belle said.
"November 22 to be exact, as Jared keeps reminding me, but we need to show brides that The Wedding Belles is still one of the premier wedding planning companies in the country, if not the world," Callie explained. "That means showing off what we do best, everything from Natalie's delicious cakes to Serena's stunning designs. Serena's entire spring line is beautiful, but my custom gown is her latest and most exquisite creation."
"But it's your wedding dress," Serena said. "I made it to fit you, not some size zero model. Anyway, I wouldn't want to risk getting makeup or runway stains on the silk."
"That doesn't mean you couldn't display the gown on a mannequin in the booth."
"What if something happens to the dress?" Regina O'Ryan, a gifted photographer, asked.
"Nothing will happen to it." Callie winked across the table. "Isn't that right, Serena?"
"Not if I'm the one who goes to Seattle." Serena appreciated her friend's vote of confidence. She wouldn't let Callie down. "I'll make sure the dress comes back."
"Seattle is on the other side of the country." Regina, her brown eyes as bright as the flash on her ever-present camera, leaned toward her. "Did you and Rupert have plans for that weekend?"
Serena gritted her teeth at the mention of her boyfriend'smake that ex-boyfriend'sname, but her smile remained steadfast. "He's been traveling a lot himself. He won't mind."
She hadn't spoken to him in months. Not since he'd dumped her in April after The Wedding Belles' assistant, Julie Montgomery, had announced her engagement to Matt McLachlan. Serena still hadn't figured out how to tell people.
Things like this didn't happen to her. Serena lived a charmed life. She was used to getting what she wanted. She'd wanted to get married and start a family. She'd thought she'd found the right guy except that she'd been too focused on the end result to realize he hadn't been so right after all.
"We don't have any plans," she added.
"You got the last good man, Serena," Natalie Thompson, a young widow with mischievous eight-year-old twin girls, said. The petite blonde sighed. "After Julie, Callie and Regina. Pretty soon, we'll have another Belle's wedding to plan. I can already guess the cake you'll want. Chocolate with orange-flavored fudge filling."
The baker, who called herself a cake fairy, brought in slices for the Belles to try every time she made samples for brides to taste. That Natalie remembered her favorite flavor touched Serena.
"And I know the flowers." Callie's green eyes twinkled like the white mini decorator lights she used with yards of tulle and garlands of blossoms. "White dendrobium orchids, green roses, green cymbidium orchids and white and green parrot tulips."
White and green. One of Serena's favorite color combinations. She shouldn't be surprised. Callie knew her tastes so well.
A cake. Flowers. Serena's friends had her perfect wedding figured out. The only thing missing was
A weight pressed down on the center of her chest. She thought of the nearly completed wedding dress hanging in her hall closet. Okay, she had been foolish, tempting fate by starting on the gown before she had a ring. But who could blame her?
Her relationship with Rupert Collier had proceeded right on schedule. They'd dated a year, met and liked each other's families and talked about the future, about creating a family together, which was what Serena wanted most of all. Becoming engaged had been the next obvious step. She'd started work on her wedding dress because she'd wanted time to get every stitch and every detail exactly right. She'd chosen the fabrics and design with the same care with which she'd chosen Rupert Collier. Not only smart, gorgeous and rich, but also ideal husband and father material. Everything she'd been looking for in a man, everything her friends expected her boyfriend to be, everything her parents wanted her to marry.
Until, impatient for a ring after dating exclusively for so long, she'd brought up the M-word. Marriage. And suddenly her perfect boyfriend wasn't ready for a serious relationship. He'd accused her of being too selfish and too self-reliant to make a permanent commitment. Oh he'd wanted to keep seeing her, she remembered bitterly. They looked good together and his boss liked her. But he'd wanted to take a serious step backward in the commitment department. Maybe, he'd suggested, they should start dating other people, too. Serena had said no, thinking he only needed a push to get their relationship back on track. Rupert had said goodbye. Proving once again that if she didn't do what others wanted, she wouldn't get what she wanted.
His parting words had stung.
You don't need me, Serena. You don't need anyone.
In the months since, she'd come to realize he was right. They were better off without each other. She didn't need him. She hadn't loved him the way a woman should love the man she wanted to marry. She hadn't wanted him as much as she liked how he'd fit into her plans. So much for her perfect dress. Her perfect groom. Her perfect life.
She forced herself to breathe. A setback, yes. A total failure, no. Serena James didn't fail.
Regina grinned, as if she'd found the perfect Kodak moment to capture with her camera. "Rupert will have to adjust his travel schedule once you get married."
Serena's stomach roiled. Her temples throbbed. She hated keeping secrets from the women she cared most about in the world, women who were more like family than coworkers, but what else was she supposed to do?
Julie had been thrilled about getting engaged. The other Belles were excited to be giving her a dream wedding. Serena couldn't let her bad news affect everyone else's joy. When Callie had fallen in love with Jared, Serena hadn't wanted her breakup to take anything away from the couple's happiness. And after Regina and Dell's marriage had become a love match, Serena couldn't find the right time to tell everyone she'd been dumped.
Now wasn't the right time, either.
Natalie and Audra Green, the company's accountant, were down on men. Telling them the truth about what had happened would only reaffirm their belief that Mr. Right didn't exist. Serena wouldn't do that to her friends. They'd already faced too much disappointment and heartache.
Besides, her friends expected more from her. Everyone did. Serena worked hard on her polished image, kept a positive attitude and was always there in a pinch. People counted on her. They expected her to find Mr. Right.
That was exactly what she intended to dofind someone to give her the perfect love, family and life she dreamed about. Just because she'd been wrong about one man didn't mean her one true love wasn't out there somewhere. Maybe even in Seattle.
"So about the bridal show" Serena leaned back in her chair "what else do I need to bring with me in addition to the wedding dresses?"
Kane Wiley ducked around the business jet's engine to place his bags in the plane's exterior storage compartment. His breath steamed in the November air.
"Is that all you've got?" his father, Charlie, asked.
"Yep." Not only for this flight. All Kane owned besides the business jet itselfcould fit into two bags. He traveled light. And liked it that way.
"I appreciate your making the trip, son." Wearing faded jeans, a black turtleneck and down vest, Charlie looked younger than his fifty-six years, even with his salt-and-pepper hair.
"Just hold up your end of the deal, Dad."
"I will." Charlie picked up a box containing soda, water, ice, boxed lunches and a plate of cookies and brownies. "I will leave you alone. No more questions. No more badgering you to come home."
Home. That was a good one. Kane nearly laughed. There hadn't been a real home to come back to since his mom had died suddenly from a heart attack three years ago and his dad had quickly remarried
and divorced. Now his father looked poised to make the same mistake again.
"But" Charlie pushed the box of food through the doorway of the cabin "I still expect a card or e-mail or phone call at Christmastime."
"I can manage that." Easter and Father's Day, too. Even his dad's birthday. Kane would do anything to get away from Boston and never have to return. He didn't want to watch his father woo and wed yet another woman who could never take the place of his mother.
"Just remember, I love you, son. I'm here if you need me. For anything. Money, whatever."
Kane nodded once. He glanced at his watch. Damn. "Where is she?"
"Belle?" Charlie asked.
Kane fought the urge not to wince at his dad's newest "friend's" name. "The one I'm flying to Seattle."
"Serena will be here," Charlie said. "Traffic is always bad at this time."
Norwood Airport was twenty-five miles north of Boston. That meant she could be really late. Kane wanted to get in the air.
"Try smiling, son," Charlie said. "You might have fun. Serena James is a beautiful young woman."
"There are lots of beautiful women out there. No need to settle on just one."
Though a cross-country romance might not be too bad. As long as it was over by the time they returned home.
Charlie shook his head. "You just haven't met the right woman to love yet."
"I meet lots of women." Kane grinned. "Love them, too."
Charlie frowned. "I mean the forever kind of love. The kind I had with your mother."
And with his second wife.
And with what's-her-name. Belle.
Forever was a joke. And lovethe kind his dad was talking aboutwas nothing more than a pretty word for convenient sex and companionship.
A white van pulled through the gate and honked its horn.
Charlie turned toward the sound. "They're here."
"Great." Kane had been hoping "they" would be a no-show.
A woman with silvery-blond hair and a beaming smile drove. She waved. Her passenger held a cell phone to her ear and wore dark, round sunglasses that hid much of her face.
The van stopped. The driver's door opened. The older woman, wearing brown pants and a colorful jacket, slid out gracefully.
"Good morning." She greeted Charlie with a handshake. The woman stepped toward Kane, extending her arm. "You must be Kane."
He shook her hand, noting her warmth and strong grip. She was different from his mother and his ex-stepmother. Older. Maybe even older than his father. That surprised Kane. "You must be Belle."
"I am." Her voice sounded like honey. Deep South honey. Slow and sweet. "I appreciate your flying Serena to Seattle."
Of course she did, especially with his father picking up all the associated flight and fuel costs.
"Kane's happy to do it," Charlie answered. "Aren't you, son?"
Kane nodded. He would be very happy once this trip was behind him and he'd be flying away for good.
"Well, we'd better get busy then." Belle opened the van doors and pulled out a box. "We have boxes to load. Brochures, favor samples and portfolios. Plus linens, flower arrangements, a cake and gowns."
Belle's eagerness to help surprised Kane. "O-kay."
"You still have to meet Serena James, our wedding dress designer," Belle said. "She's finishing up a phone call. No doubt talking to Rupert."
Kane bit. "Rupert?"
"Her boyfriend." Belle's ever present smile widened. "The two are practically engaged."
So much for a little romance in Seattle. Ring on the finger or not, Kane didn't mess around with another man's girl.
The passenger door opened. He focused on the woman exiting the van. She was, in a word, stunning. Long blond bangs fell over her forehead, but her hair didn't touch the collar of the jacket in the back. The short cut looked hip and trendy, just like the woman herself.
She wasn't tall, five-six if he was being generous and subtracted the heels on her brown leather boots. Even with her long wool coat, he could tell she had curves in all the right places.
He liked what he saw. She was exactly his type. Kane blew out a puff of breath that hung in the cold air. Old type, he corrected with a frown. He'd given up on blondes.
Her hair color coupled with the way she dressed reminded him of a former girlfriend, Amber Wallersby, who had been sexy as hell, but also a spoiled, pampered princess. She'd wanted him to stop flying his grandfather around on his private jet and take a boring desk job at one of her father's companies so he could pamper her in the manner to which she'd become accustomed. Kane had almost agreed, almost been taken in, until he'd seen that she might have been gorgeous on the outside, but was all show and zero substance on the inside.
Was Serena James the same?
Not that he was in any position to find out. Or care. Still they would be spending several hours flying west together. No sense starting off on the wrong foot.
"Hi," he said. "I'm your pilot. Kane."
Serena didn't extend her hand. She removed her sunglasses and glanced up at him. Clear, sharp eyes met his. He hadn't expected such directness or such stunning blue eyes.
"You're Kane Wiley?" Serena sounded surprised, almost as if she disapproved. "Charlie's son?"
"In the flesh."
"Do you see a family resemblance?" Charlie asked. She glanced between the two men. "Not really."
"Oh, I do," Belle said. "Like father, like son. Both of you are quite handsome."