Reeling from a broken engagement, Jeff doesn't feel like celebrating. Especially with his ex-fiancée's younger sister, Natasha Brickson. But Natasha is determined to immerse Jeff in Christmas cheer, and to his surprise, her tender care begins to mend his heart. Unlike his ex, Natasha is warm, compassionate and lovely inside and out.
Natasha's always stood in her sister's shadow, so she doesn't expect the man of her dreams to notice her. But when their friendship becomes something more, can Jeff convince Natasha that he was engaged to the wrong sister and give her the Christmas gift of a lifetime?
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As the bride worked to pull the keeper section out of the bouquet, Natasha Brickson scanned the crowd of ladies.
She'd heard that five hundred people had been invited, so that meant probably half of the two hundred and fifty ladies present were gathering to catch the bouquet.
The bride and groom had four attendants each. The wedding had been organized by a professional planner, and the hall, booked a year in advance, had been professionally decorated.
She would never have a wedding like this.
Since she didn't feel the same excitement as the rest of the crowd, Natasha stepped back from the festivities to find herself beside the wedding cake. The five-layer cake was topped by dolls that looked exactly like the bride and groom, including a miniature replica of Crystal's dress.
She would never have a dress like Crystal's, either.
That was because she would never have a wedding. Ever.
As she turned away from the cake, she found herself looking right at the reason, standing against the wall, away from the crowd.
Jeff Shaw, the best man.
She'd loved him for the past year, but any relationship with him was not to be.
Jeff was in love with her sister, Heather, and four weeks from today, Jeff and Heather would be married.
Looking beyond the mob of anxious single ladies, Natasha glanced around. She still didn't see her sister. In fact, she hadn't seen Heather all day.
The activity of the moment was the bride getting ready to throw her bouquet, so all attention was focused on Crystal and her bridesmaids.
Natasha, however, watched Jeff, standing alone, away from everyone, looking forlorn instead of happy as he should have been. She'd have thought he'd be watching along with Heather and making last-minute plans for their wedding, which would be very similar, except with about half the number of guests.
Last weekend had been Natasha's best friend, Ashley's, wedding. In comparison to the head count here, which rivaled the population of a small town, only nine people had attended Ashley and Dave's wedding, and that included the bride and groom.
Instead of a gown that cost over a month's salarybefore deductionsAshley had used her mother's vintage dress, which only needed to be hemmed. With no time to order a fancy wedding cake, they'd got one from Costco, and the small reception had been at the home of Dave's best friend.
Her friend's wedding was the most romantic thing she'd ever seen. Even the groom cried.
Out of the three women present Natasha had been the only one not married, so Ashley had simply handed her the bouquet.
"Is everyone ready?" Crystal called out as she turned around, waving the gorgeous bouquet over her head, enticing the ladies who rivaled a mob waiting for the doors at the mall to open on Black Friday.
Natasha stepped farther back. She didn't need a second bouquet to rub it in her face that she was never going to get married.
Crystal tossed the bouquet over her head.
When the bouquet flew way up in the air, everyone gasped as it barely missed the chandelier, arced over the throng of eager single women and hit one of the ceiling fans. Thrown off its trajectory, it flew straight toward Natasha.
She had to catch it or it would land on the floor.
A few women cast her dirty looks, but most of them congratulated her, even though acquiring it hadn't been a challenge.
Natasha forced herself to smile while she again looked around the room for her sister.
Instead, her eyes caught Jeff. As the men gathered to catch the garter, Jeff backed up until he was leaning against the wall.
All his best-man duties had come to an end and he should have been joining in the fun. Instead, he continued to stand back, which wasn't like him. Come to think of it, he hadn't been his usual self all day.
Bouquet in hand, she approached him.
"Hi, Jeff. You look quite dashing. But I suppose you've heard that a lot today."
One hand rose to the bow tie. "Not really."
She waited for him to say how much he hated wearing a tuxedo, but he didn't. He didn't even complain about the bow tie.
Her heart clenched with the visual. Soon he'd be wearing another tuxedo, when he said "I do" to her sister. Natasha didn't know how she was going to survive being the maid of honor, but she had to go through the motions.
"The wedding went really smooth, don't you think?" she asked, rather than let the silence hang.
Jeff looked away, not to the gathering of men, but to the door. "Yeah."
Natasha's attention was naturally drawn to the bride and groom, where Luis was pulling the garter off Crystal's leg in slow motion, looking as though he was quite enjoying the process. Most of the men surrounding them hooted, and a few whistled.
"I guess there's not much point to you joining all the men, is there? Pretty soon you'll be doing the same thing."
He stiffened and spoke without looking at her. "No. I won't."
She smiled. "Of course you will. Heather even showed me the garter she's going to wear. Where is Heather, anyway?"
"She's not here."
"Why not? Is she sick?" Last night Heather had seemed a little distracted, but otherwise fine. "No. She's not sick."
Natasha laid the bouquet on the table beside her, and rested her hand on Jeff's arm. "I don't understand."
"I told her not to come. She's been cheating on me."
Natasha's heart froze at the pain in his voice. "That can't be true. She's been making me dizzy with wedding preparations."
The muscles in his arm tensed. "When I got to the apartment to pick her up, as I stepped out of the elevator I caught her in the hallway kissing your married neighbor. The wedding's off. Now, if you'll excuse me."
Before she could think of something to say, Jeff pulled his arm away and strode off.
"No! Jeff!" Abandoning the bouquet on the table, she ran after him. "Wait!"
He spun around to face her. "What?" he spat out.
"Are you sure?" The second the words left her lips she realized what a stupid question she'd asked. She pressed her fingers to her temples. "I'm sorry. Of course you're sure. What happened?"
He let out a defeated sigh. "I caught them together just outside the door, wrapped in each other's arms with their tongues down each other's throats. It was obviously not a one-time indiscretion."
Natasha's stomach clenched into a painful knot.
"What did she say?"
Jeff shrugged his shoulders. "There was nothing she could say. I demanded my ring back, and left." He ran one hand over his breast pocket, then rammed it in his pants pocket. "Now that I think about it, a lot of loose ends are coming together. This has been going on for months, and everything went right over my head."
Comments Heather had made about their neighbors clicked into place. Especially about knowing when Melissa, Zac's wife, wasn't going to be home.
It was true. And she hadn't seen it. "I don't know what to say."
Jeff dragged his free hand over his face. "Yeah, well, life goes on. Excuse me. I need some fresh air."
Before she could say anything more, he turned and strode outside.
All she could do was stare at the closed door. Her heart broke for him. She couldn't imagine what he'd been going through for the past few hours. Until now, he'd held himself together so well no one would know anything was wrong.
She wanted to think that Heather wouldn't do such a thing, but that wouldn't have been honest. Typically self-centered, her sister often put her wants over the needs and feelings of others. Heather always knew how to get everything she wanted, and the cost was never an issue.
They'd met Jeff on the same day, and both of them developed an instant crush on him. Knowing Natasha was interested upped Heather's pursuit. Heather was naturally charming and knew how to attract men easily, while Natasha had always been shyat least, she had been back then.
Rather than fight with her sister over a man, Natasha had stepped back, waiting for the day Heather and Jeff broke up. Often Heather hadn't been ready when Jeff arrived to take her out, obligating Natasha to keep him company until Heather appeared. It hadn't taken long for Natasha to fall in love with him. She'd told herself that her love for him was strong enough to wait for when he was free of a relationshipespecially a relationship with her sister. But that never happened. In record time, Heather and Jeff had become engaged.
Even though he was still in love with her sister, it broke her heart to see him like this.
She didn't know what she was going to do to help him, but she was going to do something.
Still in his pajamas, Jeff stood staring into his closet. He couldn't believe it. He was going to church alone.
If Heather was there, he didn't know how he would face her.
Instead of picking a shirt, Jeff squeezed his eyes shut and stood still.
Most Sunday mornings when he arrived to pick Heather up, Tasha was just leaving and Heather was nowhere near ready. Often by the time she was ready, she'd felt it too disruptive to walk into the church sanctuary after the service started, so they just went out for an early lunch instead.
Many times he had the feeling she really didn't want to go, but only went to church because he did. He doubted Heather would go to church alone today, so he probably wouldn't see her.
Except walking in alone, people were bound to notice that she was missing and ask where she was. He wasn't ready to talk about itnot while the hurt was so fresh. More than just fresh, the wound was still bleeding.
He just didn't understand.
He'd been a good and attentive partner. Whenever Heather had done something he didn't like, instead of complaining he bit his tongue and let it ride unless it was something really important. Every once in a while he bought her little gifts just to show her she was special, and he remembered her birthday without needing to be reminded.
This wasn't the first time the same thing had happened to him. Even though he hadn't been on the verge of walking down the aisle with Kate, their relationship was supposed to be exclusive. A mutual friend told him that Kate had been seeing someone else at the same time. Aware that he knew, Kate had sent him a Dear John text, taken him off her friends list, and that was the end of that. It had hurt, but not as bad as this.
He'd had plans to marry Heatherto devote himself to being her partner for life.
Without picking a shirt, Jeff turned and crossed the room, parted the blinds and stared out the window at the trees just starting to turn to their autumn colors.
What was the matter with him? He thought he was a decent guy. He wasn't a hotshot millionaire executive, but he had a good reputation for his skills as a journeyman plumber. He liked his job and made good money without endless hours of overtime. Most people liked him. He went to church almost every Sunday. He was nice to children, and he didn't kick puppies.
As he stared outside, a familiar car slowed in front of his house, pulled to the side and stopped.
Tasha's car. Heather's sister.
She didn't get out, though.
His phone rang. He knew who it would be, but answered, anyway.
"Hey there," Tasha's voice rang out much too cheerfully. "I was wondering if you were going to church this morning, and if you needed a ride."
"Why would I need a ride? There's nothing wrong with my car."
"I just happened to be passing by and thought I'd save you the gas."
Since he knew exactly where she lived he also knew his house wasn't between Tasha and Heather's apartment and the church. And she knew that as a journeyman plumber, he made good money, so he didn't have to worry about two dollars' worth of gas.
He looked down at his pajama-clad legs and wiggled his bare toes. "I'm not ready."
A pause hung on the line for a few seconds. "I've got an idea. I want to go to my friend Ashley's church, but I don't want to go alone. It's close to your place, so there's still lots of time. Will you come with me?"
"Why don't you sit with your friend?"
"She's not going to be there today. She's gone on " Tasha's voice hung for a few seconds. "She's out of town today. But I want to check it out. It's really small and I thought it would be a nice change." She paused again. "Neither of us will know anyone."
Going someplace where no one knew him did have somewhat of an appeal. He dragged one hand down the front of his pajamas. "That might be a good idea, but I'm not dressed yet."
"We've got lots of time. I'm going down the street to get us some coffee and a couple of muffins. I can't talk on the phone while I'm driving. I'll be back in about ten minutes. Bye."
The phone was dead and her car was moving before he could take a breath to tell her he would probably need a little more time. He hit the button to call back and got a recording that she was unavailable as her taillights disappeared around the corner.
Jeff sighed and put the phone down. In all the time he'd spent with Tasha when he was waiting for Heather to get ready, he'd come to know her fairly well, so this didn't surprise him. She planned everything to the minutest detail, and always followed her plans. He didn't know how she knew he wouldn't be ready, but she had a plan B, or maybe it was even plan A.
Unless he got dressed quickly, both of them were going to be pretty embarrassed when she returned.