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The Mistletoe Effect
By Melissa Cutler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Melissa Cutler
All rights reserved.
Carina blinked a tear from her eye, but not because of the high emotions involved in watching her only sister get married in the same chapel that their parents and grandparents had, located in the heart of the resort her family owned.
It was a beautiful event by anyone's measure, but the real cause of Carina's tears was the overwhelming cloud of frankincense and myrrh floating over the bridal party. Not that there was anything wrong with frankincense and myrrh — they were lovely, festive scents that captured the spirit of Christmas — but a little went a long way, and a lot made her feel like the Christmas spirit was conspiring to strangle her from the inside out.
"And now, if you would turn to each other and join hands, it's time to share the vows you've each written for the other," Chaplain Roberts said with a warm smile.
As they'd choreographed at the rehearsal, Carina stepped forward, careful to avoid the sweeping satin train of Haylie's dress, to receive the bouquet of red and white roses her sister held so she could join hands with Wendell.
Standing behind Haylie, Carina had a perfect view of the hound dog expression on Wendell's face that accompanied his heavy silence. Her heart dropped. Whatever bomb he was about to drop, it was going to be all kinds of destructive. She set a supportive hand on Haylie's back and held her breath.
Wendell rotated his body, angling his face away from the pews of guests. "I didn't write any vows. I forgot," he said from behind unmoving lips, as though a ventriloquist act might save him from suffering the consequences of his confession.
If he thought that, then he didn't know his intended bride all that well. True to form, Haylie let her horror show on her face for the whole crowd to see.
"You what?" she said at full volume. "Why not?"
"I'm sorry, baby. Last night got a little out of hand and I lost track of time. Bachelor party."
From the front pew, Carina and Haylie's parents rose, looking as stunned as Carina felt.
Haylie held up her palm, her French-tipped fingers splayed. "Your bachelor party was last week."
"I had another one. The first one wasn't, um ..." He glanced over his shoulder at James Decker, his best man, whose brows were furrowed with concern, then returned his attention to Haylie and his ventriloquist act. "The party Decker threw me didn't live up to expectation."
Wendell sighed as though frustrated by Haylie's lack of understanding. "Decker didn't get me a stripper, okay? And what's a bachelor party without one, you know? So the guys threw me another one last night. You understand, right, baby?"
Haylie gasped. All Carina could do was blink and release her breath in a slow, beleaguered stream. It came as no surprise that Wendell enjoyed the company of strippers. Carina had known the guy since he came to work at the resort as the golf pro in residence when he was twenty to her seventeen and Haylie's fifteen. But while Haylie had gone away to college and missed his most devoted years of carousing, with James Decker matching him every step of the way, Carina had witnessed enough to get the general idea of the quality of both their characters.
As it stood tonight, she couldn't decide what was more shocking, that Wendell had the audacity to bring up strippers during his wedding or that Decker — the man whom her father had once reprimanded for entertaining four women at the same time in one of the guest suites — hadn't provided them for him. Sure, Decker looked perfectly respectable tonight in one of the expensive tuxes her dad had provided for the groomsmen, but the clothes didn't sit on him well. Rather than coming across like a high roller, as Wendell did, Decker more closely resembled a wolf in sheep's clothing.
"You bastard," Haylie shouted, backing up. She slapped Wendell across the cheek with a smack that echoed off the chapel walls. Then she hit him over the head with her bouquet for good measure and burst into tears.
Their father rushed toward the altar. "Haylie, knock that off."
"Daddy, I can't marry him. After everything he put me through, this is too much." She stormed down the altar steps and past their red-faced, livid father and shell-shocked mother, not that her shocked expression looked different from her usual look, given that she had a standing monthly appointment at the resort's spa for Botox injections.
There wasn't a person on the planet who dared to defy Ty Briscoe when he used that tone of voice except Haylie. As it always did, it filled Carina with an odd, inappropriate giddiness to hear Haylie stand up to him and to Wendell.
"You get back up on that altar right now, young lady," their father roared.
But Haylie was out of there.
Good for you, Carina thought.
"Baby, please," Wendell called, chasing after her.
The red and white rose bouquet went flying over Haylie's shoulder in a toss that looked almost exactly like the kind intended to determine which single woman at the wedding would be getting hitched next, except for its I'm blowing this pop stand air of defiance that slowed time and hushed sound as the petals and stems turned ass over teakettle toward the altar.
Carina lunged forward, arms out, fingers reaching, legs tangling in her red velvet dress as she tripped over a row of potted poinsettias. Whatever. Poinsettias weren't even real flowers, just shrubs with red leaves. Not that there was anything wrong with poinsettias — the plants were pretty enough around the holidays — but nothing mattered except catching the bridal bouquet before it was ruined. Her sister would need it again once she'd calmed down and returned to the chapel.
Although Haylie's rebellion had filled Carina with a sense of glee and she'd be the proudest sister in all of Texas Hill Country if Haylie stuck to her guns and stayed gone, Carina fancied herself a realist. There was no doubt in Carina's mind that Haylie would soon return to the chapel, because the reality was that once Ty and Eloise Briscoe, Carina and Haylie's parents, got a notion in their minds about something as synergetic as hosting their daughter's wedding in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of the resort's most important event of the year derailment was not an option.
A smattering of applause broke out among the crowd of three hundred when Carina made the catch and landed, splayed at Granny June's feet. She held the flowers high, triumphant, paying no mind that her dress had flipped up to reveal the orange lace-trimmed jack-o'lantern print panties she'd worn as a private act of defiance against her Mrs. Claus bridesmaid dress or to the pain in her stomach from falling on Granny's black patent-leather flats. Self-sacrifice had always been Carina's greatest virtue.
Granny June peered down at her through thick glasses. "Oooh, honey. Great catch. You'll make a beautiful bride."
Debating the veracity of Granny's many superstitions was a losing game, but Carina couldn't help herself. "Just because I caught the bouquet doesn't mean I'm getting married."
As if there were any men in her life waiting in line for the honor. She missed men and sex — damn, how she missed sex — but even if she'd been better at flirting or the kind of woman men naturally gravitated to, like Haylie, Carina didn't have time for dating. Work consumed her every waking minute and often her dreams, too, especially during the holiday season.
Granny scoffed. "Of course it does. Don't be a ninny." Then she held up the smartphone that seemed permanently attached to her hand and snapped a photo.
Carina was still recovering from the flash when a shadow fell over her. She twisted to see Decker, a bemused smile on his lips. He held his hand out in assistance, which she accepted as soon as her heart stopped pounding out of control. His hand was big and calloused and his grip strong as he helped her up, then brushed the skirt of her dress down to cover her backside, much to her mortification. She'd forgotten about that as soon as he'd appeared standing over her.
"Are you all right?"
She nodded, embarrassed and tongue-tied. "Uh, yes. Yeah. The flowers ..." She let her voice trail off.
"Granny June was right. That was some catch."
Carina couldn't think of a darn thing to say in response to that. Thank you didn't even seem right, because she couldn't decide if he was teasing her or paying her a genuine compliment. Pretending like she hadn't heard the comment, she scanned the rows of guests, watching dispassionately as her parents and the rest of the bridesmaids frantically attempted damage control.
She was never smooth or natural around James Decker, not in all the years since he'd come to work with the resort's stable of horses and other livestock. Every time he talked to or even looked at her, she turned seventeen again, gangly and awkward, unable to formulate a sentence around the bad boy who'd first ridden onto the resort on a motorcycle with nothing but the clothes on his back, a cowboy hat on his head, and a fading black eye to apply for the job.
She located her father halfway down from the altar on the side of the room. He had his arm around Addison Littman, one of the two journalists from Wedding World magazine who'd flown in especially for the event. Carina's mother wasn't in the chapel, as far as Carina could tell, which probably meant she'd gone after Haylie.
This is a mess," Decker said. "What do we do?"
"We wait. Haylie'll be back. My mother's probably on the job, so it's only a matter of time."
The crowd buzzed with quiet chatter, but nobody rose or left, either waiting to be excused or banking on the fact that Ty Briscoe would get his daughter married off.
Then Carina heard it. A mention of the Mistletoe Effect, then another. A woman on the right side of the room asked the man next to her, "Does this count as a breakup? They weren't really married yet, so it doesn't end the streak, right?"
Damn. Damn, damn, damn. This was a bigger disaster than she'd initially thought. She swung her attention back to her father and the journalists. Triple dog damn it.
She had twenty-two more weddings lined up at the resort before Christmas. Couples who'd paid premium dollar to get married at Briscoe Ranch Resort during the month of December because of the phenomenon that local wedding planners had long ago dubbed the Mistletoe Effect — Briscoe Ranch Resort's perfect fifty-year record of divorce-free marriages that had taken place in the first twenty-five days of December. If word got out about Haylie's wedding disaster, if couples got nervous about the streak ending — or, worse yet, if Wedding World wrote about the streak ending — then what would that mean for the future of the company?
This was the Briscoe family's bread and butter, their company's ticket to the next level of luxury resorts. It was why her parents had scheduled Haylie's wedding when they did and called in Wedding World, hoping to land a coveted spot on their annual Best of the Best list of destination wedding locales.
The rear doors of the chapel swung open and Carina's mother stepped in, her hands clasped in front of her gold-and-silver couture gown and her chin held high. If Carina wasn't mistaken, it looked like she'd taken the time to apply fresh lipstick before returning to the chapel, though her eyes were watery as though she was having a rare moment of genuine emotion.
"She's gone. Wendell, too. It's over." With a sniff, Carina's mom dabbed at the corner of her eye with a lace handkerchief, then walked to Carina's father's side with the stiff grace and perfect posture befitting a former Dallas County beauty queen.
The crowd exploded with loud discussion. Some people stood to leave, though most looked rooted to their chairs.
Carina whirled on Decker. "If you'd thrown Wendell a bachelor party with strippers, this never would have happened."
Her face was instantly hot. What a ridiculous thing to say. It was amazing how easy it was to get sucked into her parents' vortex and let her concern for the business overshadow her concern for Haylie's well-being, but screwed-up priorities were her parents' gig, not hers. Haylie was better off without marrying Wendell, even if it cost the Briscoes' business hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue and irreversibly changed the course of the resort's growth.
Decker seemed unfazed. Crossing his arms over his chest, he rocked on his boot heels and arched a brow. "This must be one of those damned if I do, damned if I don't arguments you women are so fond of."
His deep Texas drawl flustered her almost as much as the way his arm muscles strained against the sleeves of his tuxedo jacket.
She snapped her gaze back to his face. "Absolutely not. I was trying to thank you."
He smiled at that, as though he didn't know she had it in her to jest. She didn't blame him; she could hardly believe she'd said something remotely witty to the man she found intimidating and unapproachable in every way.
Her father stormed to the front of the chapel again, pointing a finger at the bridal party and chaplain. "In the back room, now!"
Speaking of intimidating.
Before she could move, a knock sounded. She turned to see Granny June standing, rapping her cane on the back of her pew to get everyone's attention. The chatter in the room ceased. Even Carina's father froze.
Granny June might not be quite all there in the head anymore and she might let superstitions rule her life, but she was still one of the strongest, smartest women Carina knew. Along with Grandpa Tyson, who'd passed when Carina was a kid, Granny had the vision and guts to turn his run-down family ranch into a multimillion-dollar resort that had sustained three generations of Briscoes and, the family hoped, would sustain many more generations to come.
"The Mistletoe Effect started when my dear husband, Tyson, and I were married in this very chapel fifty years ago this month. In the years since, I have attended every December wedding held under this roof. Never once have I seen such an atrocity as has befallen here tonight. If a wedding doesn't take place, then the Mistletoe Effect is jinxed."
The buzz started up again in the crowd, but Granny wasn't done. She aimed her cane at her son. "This is up to you to fix. The Christmas spirits demand nuptials, so nuptials are what you have to give them if you want the Mistletoe Effect to keep working. There ain't no going back on a jinx like this." She swung her cane toward Carina. "And you."
Carina's stomach did a flip-flop. She gripped the bridal bouquet tighter. Don't say it, Granny.
"The bouquet has spoken."
The bouquet ... speaking? Sure, Granny was off her rocker, but she had to be kidding.
Granny waggled her cane. "Carina, you're the one getting married here tonight."
Triple dog damn it.
* * *
"I am not getting married tonight."
Carina said it so softly, Decker wasn't sure anyone else had heard it. Another thing he wasn't sure of was why the hell he'd followed her into the tiny side room of the chapel along with her father, her mother, the chaplain, and the rest of the bridal party. Actually, Decker knew why, not that it made the situation any easier to swallow.
Carina needed backup. He'd been around her and the Briscoe family long enough to know she was absolutely spineless when it came to standing up for herself against her parents. It pissed him off because he knew she was smarter and stronger than she was making herself out to be and because normally he wasn't in any sort of position to come to her rescue. Tonight, though, he was making an exception because, as far as he could tell, he was the only one who cared about anything other than the stupid mistletoe legend.
Ty Briscoe stomped across the room with the gusto of a bull with cactus needles in his ass. "Oh, yes, you are. This is your fault."
"How?" Decker asked, because he was sure Carina wasn't going to voice the obvious.
"You were the wedding planner," Ty snapped at Carina, as though she'd been the one to ask. "You should have made sure Wendell wrote his vows."
Carina's eyes were wide. A sheen of perspiration had broken out on her nose and forehead. "I know, but —"
Hold up a sec. She was taking responsibility for Wendell's jackassery? Decker turned his back on Ty and leveled a stern gaze at Carina. "Don't let him talk to you like that."
"He means well. His heart's in the right place."
Excerpted from The Mistletoe Effect by Melissa Cutler. Copyright © 2014 Melissa Cutler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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