Callie Phillips slipped the final flower into the cheery wedding bouquet, stepped back to admire her handiwork and marveled at the irony of her career choice.
A woman who didn't believe in happily ever after, crafting floral dreams for starry-eyed, Cinderella-was-no-fairy-tale brides.
Callie fingered the greenery surrounding the flowers symbolizing hope. True love. A happy ending. Her clients at Wedding Belles were paying her to act like she believed fairy tales came true. But all the while Callie created those dreams with vibrant blooming white roses and delicate pastel freesia, she hid the fact that the petals had long ago dropped from her own jaded heart.
"My goodness, will you look at that. Another beautiful creation, darlin'." Belle Mackenzie, the owner of the Wedding Belles and Callie's employer, breezed into the basement floral design area. She was impeccable as always in a skirt and bright red sweater set that offset her gray hair and shaved years off her fifty-plus age. "You are incredible. Whatever made you think of this combination?" Belle bent to inhale the fragrance of the burnt-orange tulips, paired with deep purple calla and crimson gloriosa lilies. "The bride, actually," Callie said. "Becky was just so outgoing, and this design seemed to suit her personality, not to mention the unique colors of her wedding party dresses."
"I don't know how you do it. You read people like novels." Belle smiled. "Best thing I ever did was hire you."
Callie smiled. "No, I think it's the opposite. Best thing I ever did was walk in here and apply for a job." Belle had taken Callie under her wing years ago, seeing a budding creative talent and someone who needed a stable, maternal figure. She'd taught Callie the art of flower arranging, even paid for her to go to classes, then when she'd expanded her wedding planning company into the much bigger Wedding Belles, had given Callie the job of florist. And through that job, a group of close friends who had since become Callie's rock.
Giving Callie's unstable life a firm basis for the first time in her life.
Now Callie spent her days discussing calla lilies and Candia roses with starry-eyed brides, but never for one moment believing she would hold another bouquet, opening her heart a second time, believing once again that one man would be by her side forever.
Just the idea of forever made her consider heading for the hills. She'd tried it once, on a whim, and it hadn't worked at all. Callie wasn't slipping on that gold band of permanence again under any circumstances.
Belle gave her a grin. "We all make a good team, don't we? The Wedding Belles."
"Even if one of us has never been swayed to the dark side?"
Belle's laughter was hearty. "You mean the white side of the aisle? It's not as bad as you think over there. And one day, darlin', I'll convince you that falling in love and getting married isn't the prison sentence you think."
Ever since Belle had hired her three years ago, she'd been working on convincing Callie that marriage was an institution for everyone, sort of like a One Size Fits All suit. Callie wasn't surprisedthe gregarious owner of the wedding planner company had been married several times and had gone into the business because she loved happy endings. The other women on the Belles team echoed that sentimentand most had already found their happily ever after.
But Callie knew better. For some people, love was an emotion best left for greeting cards.
"Belle, I already tried marriage once and it didn't work." Callie cut the end of the crimson satin ribbon that she'd tied in a ballet slipper style around the stems of the bouquet, then tucked a few strands of reflective wires and delicate crystal sprays into the flowers, adding a touch of bling.
"That's called practice," Belle said, laughing. "Second time's always better. And if not, third time's a charm. Or in my case, maybe the fourth."
Callie rolled her eyes. "I'm certainly not going to get married that many times." If at all, ever again. Her divorce was only eighteen months in the past, and if there was one thing her marriage to Tony had taught Callie
It was that she, of all people, should never get married again.
"You know what you should do?" Belle said. "Celebrate."
"Being single again.You've been back on the market for over a year, Callie, and you have yet to take a step out of the barn."
"A step out of the barn?"
"And pick another stallion in the corral." Belle winked.
"There are plenty of 'em out there, honey. All you need to do is pick the one that gets your hooves beatin' the fastest."
"Oh, no, not me." Callie waved off the idea, even as she laughed at Belle's advice. "I'll keep on working with the flowers. They don't let me down."
"They also don't keep your bed toasty at night."
"So I'll buy an electric blanket." Callie put the bouquet, along with the rest of the wedding party flowers, inside the large walk-in refrigerator, then turned to walk upstairs with Belle. In a couple of hours, she and the other Belles would deliver everything to the wedding party, and see one more bride down the aisle.
"Well, before you go choosing a blanket over a beau, will you run on down to O'Malley's tonight and drop off the new invitations for his daughter's wedding? Apparently the first time the printer changed the groom's name from Clarence to Clarice. Thankfully we caught the mistake just before they got mailed."
Callie eyed Belle. "Is this some way of forcing me out?"
Belle gave a suspicious up and down of her shoulders, a teasing smile playing at her lips. "Maybe."
Audra Green, the company's accountant, greeted the two of them as they entered the reception area of the Belles'office. The entire room spoke of Belle's sunny personality, with its bright yellow walls, gleaming oak floors and bright white woodwork. It welcomed and warmed everyone who entered, just as Belle herself did. "What's Belle cooking up now?" Audra asked. "I read something mischievous in her eyes."
"Proving to Callie that Mr. Right could be right down the street."
"Along with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus," Callie deadpanned, retrieving the box of invitations from the desk.
"So I thought she should go down to O'Malley's tonight and maybe deliver these invitations, scope out the dating scene," Belle went on, optimistically ignoring Callie. "Get back on the horse before she forgets where the stirrups are."
Callie and Audra laughed, then the straitlaced accountant sobered and gave Callie a sympathetic smile. "Do you want some company?" Audra asked. "Thanks, but I won't need it. Contrary to Belle's match-making plans, I'm going to drop off these wedding invitations and nothing more," Callie said.
"And if Mr. Right happens to be sitting at the end of the bar?" Belle asked.
"If he is," Callie laughed at Belle's indomitable belief in Disney endings and picked up one of the thick silver envelopes in the box and wagged it in Belle's direction for emphasis, "then I'm sure you'll be the first to announce it to the world."
Jared Townsend believed in the power of proof. If something could be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, then he accepted it as fact.
His quest for proof was why he had excelled in geometry but not abstract thought. Why he'd nearly failed poetic analysis and instead discovered a home in the concrete world of statistics.
But now he found himself in the most unlikely of places, to prove the most unprovable of statistics. A bar on a Thursday night.
To prove that true love could be measured and analyzed, weighed and researched. For that reason, he had a clipboard and a pen and intended to interview at least a dozen couples before the bar closed, assuming he stayed awake that long.
A party animal, he was not. He wasn't even a party puppy.
"Welcome to O'Malley's. What can I get you?" A rotund bartender with a gray goatee came over to Jared, a ready smile on his face, his hand already on a pint glass. At the other end of the bar sat an older man, his shoulders hunched, head hung, staring into a beer.
"Beer sounds good." Jared slid his clipboard onto the bar, along with a few already sharpened pencils. Raring to go.
If anything spelled geek, that was it. No wonder Jared hadn't had a date in three months. Carry a clipboardan instant death knell for attracting women.
The bartender arched a brow at the pencils and clipboard, apparently agreeing with that mental assessment, but kept his counsel and poured the draft. He slid the frosty mug over to Jared without a word.
A couple walked in. Jared grabbed a pencil, readying himself. At first glance, they looked perfect for his survey. Early twenties, blond girl, brunette guy, walking close, talking fast, as if they were
Arguing. "You're a moron," the girl said. "I don't know what I ever saw in you. Seriously, Joey, my toaster has more brains than you and that's after I burned my bagel."
"Dude, that's mean."
"And quit calling me dude. I'm your girlfriend, or at least I was. Not your dude." She flung off his hand and stalked away, ordering a tequila shot, which she knocked back in one swift, easy movement that said she'd done this before. More than once.
Jared put down his pencil. He let out a sigh, settled back on his stool and took a long, deep gulp of beer. No one else was in the bar, even though it was nearly nine and the sign outside promised karaoke night would start in a little while. Maybe he should have picked a place further downtown, rather than one so close to his apartment.
"Hey, O'Malley, how 'bout another for the road?" the man sitting at the opposite end of the bar said. He raised his glass, but it trembled and he nearly dropped it.
"I think you've had enough," the bartender, apparently the O'Malley namesake of the bar, said.
The man swayed in his seat. "No, no. Not enough, not yet." Jared heard the wordsso familiarand turned away, fiddling with his clipboard. His memory raced back all the same to someone else, to another slurred voice, determined to have one more round.
O'Malley let out a grunt of disgust. "You're cut off. Why don't you go home?"
"Don't wanna go home." The man heaved a sigh, stumbled off the stool and careened down the bar. "No one there. No one t'all." He crashed into a couple more stools, then gripped the edge of the polished oak surface and teetered.
The memories slammed into Jared until he couldn't ignore them any longer. He shook his head, then got to his feet and caught the man's elbow, righting the stranger just before he lost his balance.
"Get him some coffee," Jared said, signaling to the bartender. "And call him a cab."
"I ain't paying for that." O'Malley scowled. "If I took care of every drunk"
"I'll pay." The man may be a stranger, but his story hit a familiar note in Jared's chest, one he had to heed. He turned to the man, and helped him onto one of the seats, ignoring the nearly overpowering stench of alcohol. "Sir, why don't you sit here a bit? Have some coffee, wait for the cab."
It took a second, then understanding filtered into the older man's bleary gaze. "You're a good man." He patted Jared on the back. "My new best friend. And I don't even know your name."
"Jared Townsend." Jared doubted the man would remember his name in the morning, but it didn't matter. Jared had been down this road often enough to know where it led.
"I'm Sam." His inebriated tongue slurred the "s," and his handshake had a decided wave to it, but the sentiment was there. Jared slid the coffee in front of Sam, and encouraged him to drink up.
The door opened again and Jared swiveled toward the sound, once again grabbing his clipboard and pencil. This time a single woman walked in, but no man followed behind her. Jared's spirits plummeted. Clearly he'd picked the wrong bar. Not a big surprise, given how little experience he had with this kind of scene.
Maybe he should leave, try another place, one with more atmospheresome atmosphere at leastor try a restaurant, a diner, a
Holy cow. Callie Phillips.
Jared's breath caught, held. The pencil in his hands dropped to the floor, and rolled across the hardwood surface. A woman sang about a broken heart on the jukebox, Sam said something about the quality of the coffee and the tequila toting couple went on fighting, but Jared didn't pay attention. He pushed his glasses up his nose, refocused and made two hundred percent sure.
Yes, it was Callie.
She'd just walked into the bar and upset his perfectly ordered, perfectly balanced life.
He had the advantage of watching her while her eyes adjusted to the dim interior. He studied her, noting the difference nine years had made. It could have been nine days for all his heart noticed.
She'd cut her hair, and now the dark blond locks curled around her ears, framed her face, teased at her cheeks. But she still had the same delicate, fine boned face, wide green eyes, and those lips
Bright crimson lipstick danced across her lips, lips that had always seemed to beg him to kiss them, mesmerized him whenever she talked. He watched her approach, his gaze sweeping over her still lithe curves, outlined in jeans and a bright turquoise top, then returning to her face, to her mouth, and something tightened in his gut.
And Jared Townsend, who never did anything without a reason, a plan, completely forgot why he was here.