Winter Wedding Bells: An Anthology

Winter Wedding Bells: An Anthology

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781460389461
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Sold by: HARLEQUIN
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 87,597
File size: 401 KB

About the Author

Award-winning author Karen Rock is both sweet & spicy—at least when it comes to her writing! The author of YA and adult contemporary books writes spicy suspense and small-town romances. A big believer in Happily-Ever-After, Karen loves creating unforgettable stories that leave her readers smiling. Karen is an avid reader and baker who loves having the Adirondack Park as her backyard, where she lives with her husband and daughter who make her life complete.
Jennifer Snow lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her husband and four year old son. She is a member of the RWA, the Alberta Writers Guild, Canadian Authors Association and SheWrites.org. Her first Brookhollow book was a finalist in the Heart of Denver Aspen Gold contest and the Golden Quill Award. More information can be found at www.jennifersnowauthor.com

Read an Excerpt

Julie Barrett struggled in a net of white tulle, snared like a winter rabbit.

"I can't breathe." She threw back her veil, avoiding her reflection in the hotel suite's mirror as a local seamstress executed Julie's final wedding-dress fitting. Everything about the gown seemed wrong. Too many seed pearls. Not enough lace. The satin section looked bare. It'd taken her forever to settle on this lace-sleeved, V-neck, princess dress. Was she having second thoughts again or was she cranky from food deprivation?

Her stomach rumbled as she stared at her kettle corn-munching bridesmaids. They lounged on the birch-post bed and wing-back chairs, French doors onto Mirror Lake Lodge's wraparound porch behind them, icicles hanging from the gabled roof's eaves. Their perfumes mingled in the rustic yet elegant room, and the floral mix reminded her of a botanical garden. In fact, in their ruby satin gowns, they resembled roses strewn about the floral-wallpapered room, brilliant splashes of color in what would be her wedding suite on Christmas Eve.

Only four days from now… Her stomach cramped.

Definitely hunger, she reassured herself. She tamped down the jitters that'd become her constant companion lately. With so much going on, who wouldn't feel nervous? And why, on top of every other bridal task ahead, had she agreed to participate in a winter charity run? Crazy. Or, as her MIA maid of honor, Alexis, would have said, overachieving.

Julie rubbed her throbbing temples. If only Alexis hadn't missed her flight—she really needed her old college roommate right now. How lucky that Connecticut University had put them in the same dorm their freshman year. Once Alexis sprang into their room clutching an armload of prelaw books, a bag of dipped Oreos dangling from her clenched teeth, Julie's doubts about leaving her nearby home for a small bit of independence had vanished. Would Alexis work her magic again when she arrived and erase Julie's butterflies?

Meghan, Julie's flower girl, bounced to a stop and held up a candy cane. "Want one?" When the little girl grinned, her lone front tooth made her resemble an impish elf. Too cute.

"Yes, but no," Julie groaned. Her mouth flooded as she breathed in the peppermint sweetness. How long since she'd had sugar? Carbs? A Christmas cookie? She tried not to think about all the holiday treats she'd passed up this month while on her self-imposed wedding diet. If she never saw another salad again, she'd die a happy woman. Then again, with a vegan for a groom, odds were not in her favor. She predicted lots of quinoa in her future…and midnight raids for fast-food burgers, extra guilt on the side.

Julie's friend and bridesmaid, Claire, joined her daughter, Meghan, and tucked pinecone barrettes in her hair. "You know how we don't feed animals at the zoo?" Claire murmured. She shot Julie a cheeky grin. "It's kind of like that."

Meghan's eyes widened and she clutched the bag to her chest.

Julie glared at her friend, then gave the little girl a reassuring smile. "Mommy's kidding, sweetie. She just gets confused sometimes. Like when she doesn't remember to put cars in Park and they roll into rivers…stuff like that."

Meghan's curls bounced around her shoulders as she looked from one woman to the other. Claire made a pfft sound and straightened Julie's slipping veil.

"The car was twelve years old and insured. Get over it, girl."

"All my music was in there," protested Julie. She raised her arms when the seamstress tapped her elbows.

"Right. Like your boy-band collection was irreplaceable." Claire pulled a tissue from her purse, revealing Meghan's dimples as she wiped sticky streaks off her child's face. "Next time I go to a garage sale, I'll pick up a stack of CDs for a buck. Merry Christmas."

"Too late. I already downloaded them." Julie pointed at Laura, her oldest cousin and bridesmaid. "Can you get my iPod?"

"Nooooooo," Claire moaned. She peered down at Meghan. "I apologize in advance for this, sweetheart."

In a moment, Julie had the old tunes blasting. The girls giggled and stumbled as they imitated cheesy dance moves—even Claire joined in when Meghan dragged her into the fray. Julie wished she could be down there with them. Cut loose after these stressful months of wedding planning… If not for her hardworking seamstress, Julie would have leaped off the dais and busted a move.

"That has got to be illegal in some states." Laura laughed. She pulled off her dress to reveal a tank top and shorts, then collapsed on the imitation bear rug in front of a natural-stone fireplace. Flames licked the large logs and shot sparks behind the ornate black grate.

"All the fun stuff is," drawled Claire.

Julie faked a shocked look and crouched down to Meghan's height. "I apologize for your mother. Should have done that while you were in her belly."

"But I wouldn't have heard you." Meghan frowned then hugged her mother's knees. "And I love Mommy."

Claire shot Julie a triumphant look. "Winning."

"You always do."

Julie straightened. When the seamstress grasped the back of the gown and pulled, her lungs inflated, fighting against the unrelenting bodice.

"Tell me again why I picked this torture device in the first place," she gasped.

"Because for you, making up your mind is, hmm…how shall I put it?" Claire tapped her chin and assumed a thoughtful look.

Meghan tugged at her mother's bow, unraveling it at the waist. "You said that hockey-puck place would freeze over."

"What are you teaching your children, Claire?" Julie smirked and tried to ignore the faintness stealing over her as her blood depleted of oxygen.

Claire covered her daughter's ears. "Shut it, Julie." She let go of her child. "I wasn't about to let you walk out of your tenth bridal shop without something—not with the wedding only two months away. I was starting to think you were having second thoughts."

"Ha! Right." Julie's overloud protest sounded as the iPod shuffled to another tune. A beat of silence followed and the members of her bridal party exchanged glances. Julie studied her bow-tipped shoes, her face warm. "This is exactly what I always wanted."

Why didn't she sound more convincing? She adored Mason. He was everything she'd ever imagined her future husband would be.

Claire held up a drop pearl and rhinestone earring to Julie's ear and their eyes met in the mirror. "Whatever makes you happy. You know I always support you. Except when it comes to your appalling taste in music, of course."

"Of course." Julie bent over and kissed Claire's cheek. "Thanks, sweetie." What would she do without her girlfriends? If not for Claire, she wouldn't even have a dress. Good thing Alexis had given her the thumbs-up via FaceTime, too, or she and the bridal party might be walking down the aisle in comfy jeans.

Decisions. The bane of her life.

She pulled in another thimbleful of air.

"No deep breaths," mumbled the woman who jabbed a pin near Julie's rib cage. "Unless you're going to faint."

Julie's mother, Dianne, peered up from her cell phone, her spindle-thin legs propped on the tan settee. She sent Julie a quelling look. "Stay still, darling."

"Trying." Julie locked her shaking knees.

Stay and still. Two words she understood all too well. Hadn't she remained with her ailing mother after college, eight years ago, rather than follow her first love? She'd planned to join her adventurous ex overseas once she guaranteed that her mother's newly diagnosed MS was being properly managed. With her father's time tied up in his demanding medical practice and after-hours free clinic, her mother needed extra support.

Janelle, the nurse's aide they'd hired, was a stranger at the time and leaving her mother right away felt all kinds of wrong. Plus, she'd thought Austin would wait for her…but he hadn't. He'd moved on. Her lips firmed. And so had she.

Soon she'd be Mrs. Mason Stanton, a doctor's wife, just like her mother. It was a sensible future. Practical. Made everyone happy, especially her. She could clearly envision their future. No surprises or unexpected twists like the life Austin had offered. Just simple, uncomplicated love. Beautiful.

So why the unease?

Julie tried not to flinch when another pin stuck her. Her gaze darted out the doors and drifted over frozen Mirror Lake and snow-covered Whiteface Mountain in the distance. Heavy-bellied clouds sprinkled the wintry landscape with white confetti, turning her Lake Placid, New York, destination wedding into a fairy-tale scene.

When would this feel like her happily-ever-after? Probably when she could eat more than twelve hundred calories a day. Only rabbits and Victoria Beckham ate that little. She met her mother's narrowed eyes and straightened her posture. The lace ending at her elbows itched and her armpits felt damp and hot. Cinderella, she was not.

"Are you getting excited about the wedding?" The seamstress crouched at Julie's feet now, frowning at the dress's scalloped hem. "This is a great place to get married." Julie met her mother's sudden, intent stare and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"It's like a winter wonderland," gushed Ashley, a junior bridesmaid. The young teen twirled and her tulip-shaped dress floated around her knee socks before she collapsed on a velvet footstool. With a shrug, Julie looked away, confused by her mother's curious behavior. Did mothers of the bride get jitters, too?

"You know," continued Ashley, "like that old movie you made me watch. What was it? White Holiday?"

"White Christmas," Julie corrected with a smile. "Sheesh. A little respect for the best holiday romance ever."

"Danny Kaye looks like Conan O'Brian." Ashley held up her cell phone screen, then passed it around. Surprised exclamations filled the room.

"This place looks like the lodge from the movie, too," piped up Laura, handing over the smartphone.

Julie's nerves settled a bit. Yes. She'd always dreamed of a holiday wedding that reminded her of her favorite Christmas romance. After an exhaustive internet search, she'd been shocked when her mother, who avoided the web as though she believed it held real spiders, found it.

Once Julie had spied this quaint, white clapboard inn nestled amid towering pines and taller mountains, it'd been love at first sight. With its Adirondack-style gazebo, an arched wooden bridge over a small stream and Victorian-farmhouse architecture, it had everything she'd imagined. Yet she couldn't shake the feeling that she didn't belong here.

"They look a lot alike," Julie agreed, though her voice sounded strained, even to her. Everything was perfect…it had to be.

"Better, I'd say." The seamstress took out a tiny pair of scissors and snipped at loose threads. "Have you seen it lit up at night?"

"It looks like a fairyland Christmas tree." Laura rolled onto her back and propped her toes on the hearth. "How do they get those twinkle lights everywhere? Even on the chimney tops?"

"Oh, they go all out here for the holidays. You're a lucky girl, Julie." The seamstress removed a pin from her mouth and smiled up at her.

"Yes. Very lucky," her mother said with a measured look that made Julie squirm.

She knew she should respond, but what more was there to say? She was fortunate. Incredibly so. Mason was an amazing man. A catch. They'd been friends growing up in their small Connecticut town and, when he'd joined her father's family practice, it'd made sense to take their relationship to the next level. Her diamond ring dug into her palm and she unclenched her hands.

She loved knowing exactly what life with steadfast, sincere Mason would be like. Julie had grown up watching her mother and father, and wanted the same future. She hated surprises. Always read book endings before starting them. Searched out spoiler alerts. Religiously followed the outcomes of her pros-and-cons lists—even the one, eight years ago, that tipped the scales and kept her from leaping into the unknown with someone else…from being someone else…the risk taker she'd tried and failed to become while at college.

She bit the inside of her cheek as her vision curled in on itself, dark at the edges. What was wrong with her? She needed some air. Glancing out the window, she noticed a sandy-haired man stretching at the start of a trail run.

He looked just like.

She leaned forward.

Austin?

Curiosity seized her.

"If we're done, I'd love to go for a run," Julie blurted out. She helped the seamstress to her feet. The woman nodded and rubbed her knuckles against her lower back.

Julie peered outside again, tracking the broad-shouldered man as he disappeared around a bend. Could it be him? Was she seeing things?

Dianne braced herself on the arm of the settee and rose, slow and slightly unsteady, her eyes trained on her daughter. In a flash, Julie had her arm around her mother's waist. She left it there until Dianne grasped her walker's handles. "We still need to finalize the seating charts. And you haven't okayed the centerpieces."

"We can do that later. I really need to get out."

And clear my head, she added silently. See if the man outside is my ex.

She stepped out of her gown and yanked on the running gear she'd brought. Good thing she'd already planned on the jog. As she walked beside her mother through the door, she heard the seamstress barking orders to the rest of the groaning and griping bridal party.

Poor woman. Julie would personally invite her to the reception as a thank-you for taking this job with such little notice. How many guests would that make? Eighty-five? Eighty-six? Even though it wasn't a huge wedding, with most of their guests staying at the lodge to take advantage of this ski and spa holiday, it felt almost unmanageable. Thank goodness for the lodge's upbeat, efficient events planner, Grace.

After knocking to ensure her father wasn't inside and changing, she inserted the old-fashioned key to her parents' room and led her mother to the bed.

"I don't need this much help, Julie." Dianne clamped a hand around the carved headboard and let go of the walker. "When you and Mason get married, there won't be any need for you to come over after work."

"Of course I will." Confusion twisted through Julie. Didn't her mother want her to check in? Didn't she appreciate her company on the many nights her father worked late? "What do you mean?"

Dianne kicked off her heels before lying down. "I'm going to ask Janelle to move in with us. She can have your apartment in the guest house and I'll have full-time care. She needs a place to stay now that her husband's gone, and you need to focus on Mason. He's your priority now, isn't he?" Her mother raised an eyebrow.

Julie thought of the many evenings Mason, too, worked late, and of his weekend squash matches. Mason filled up his own time card. One of the things he said he loved about her was her undemanding nature; he liked his space. As for her, she liked his dependability. His life ran like a solar-powered watch.

"But you need me, Mom."

"Of course I do, sweetie. Let's talk it over later." Dianne yawned, then squeezed Julie's hand.

"Are you tired?" Concern spiked. Caring for her mother—and the accounting job Mason had encouraged her to quit so she could finally pursue her passion for photography—had been Julie's life these past eight years. What would it be like when her free time became her own? Her mind ran over the possibilities and came up pathetically empty. The thought of snapping photos of their suburban town's car wash and minimart didn't match the dream that had come to her in college of traveling the globe, capturing the essence of foreign cultures through her lens. She'd wanted to be more adventurous then. Another person. Someone she no longer knew.

"I'm a little tired." A faint smile lifted her mom's lips. "Would you shut the curtains? I'll take a nap until you get back."

"I'll bring you tea." Julie checked her watch. "Your medicines will be due then, too." Julie headed to the window and stared at the forest trail below, hopeful that the Austin lookalike wouldn't be too far away before she got out there.

"Have a good run, sweetheart."

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