Falling for AprilStanding in the vestibule of San Diego's Oceanside Presbyterian church, Ryan Forrester awaited his cue to walk down the aisle. The organist was tuning up, and according to the clipboard-wielding wedding planner he'd hired, they'd be ready for him soon.
At the thought of what was to come, a fresh attack of nerves struck him. To overcome it, Ryan adjusted the cuffs of his perfectly-tailored custom Armani tuxedo and concentrated on his surroundings. His very tasteful, very well-coordinated, very...flowery surroundings.
He glanced at the mounds of blossoms—orchids, roses, gawky sunflowers—crowding the vestibule, a testament to his fiancée's last-minute indecision. They made it a veritable allergy commercial set in here, their mingled scents overpoweringly sweet. Striding to the window, Ryan opened it to admit the seaside breeze.
The salty tang that swept inside felt weirdly liberating.
He rolled his shoulders, listening to the hum of voices beyond the closed door of the room. Rows of family and friends had gathered there, waiting for the wedding to begin. Just over three hundred of them had been invited—and even that had been a mere drop in the bucket of his socialite mother's socialite social circle.
After all, as Mimi Forrester had so often reminded her son during the past whirlwind month, the wedding of a Forrester—even the rushed wedding of a Forrester—was big news in San Diego. It wouldn't do to do it halfway.
"The organ music stopped," Jackson Hart said. "Sounds like your trap must be nearly set."
With a wolfish grin that suited his shaggy post-prep-school looks, Ryan's groomsman glanced up from the game of solitaire he'd been playing atop a box of hymnals. He unscrewed his pocket flask, slugged back some of the mixed martini he kept inside, and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his black tuxedo jacket.
"You ready?" he asked.
Ryan nodded, ignoring the flash of unease that whipped through him as he did. Wedding jitters. Every groom probably experienced them. More than likely, they were nothing to worry about. And in any case, he wasn't a worrying kind of man.
"I was born ready," he told Jackson.
And he had been. Nearly. As the last in a long line of successful and celebrated Forresters, Ryan had been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. In the thirty-two privileged years since then, he'd removed it mostly in honor of throwing parties, attending parties, and, on one nerve-shattering day, proposing marriage—really just another big party, right? Which was what had brought him here, to—
A flash of white outside the window caught his eye. Wedding dresses were white, he thought instantly. So were wedding dresses worn by runaway brides. Could it be...?
Nah. Frowning over his suddenly-overdeveloped imagination—after all, why would his bride run out on him?—Ryan buffed clean the face of his Rolex and squared his shoulders.
"Sucker," Jackson muttered, returning to his game.
"Nice talk, for a groomsman." Ryan glanced out the window again, at the grassy bluff the church was settled on. In the distance, the Pacific ocean sparkled in the late-April sunlight. He squinted, unable to resist searching amid the twisted Torrey pines for another flash of white. "That's why you're not best man. You'd jinx the whole damned thing."
Jackson grunted. "You'll find out. Just like the rest of us trust-fund fellas. You get fleeced once, and you're careful forever. Believe me. Women can't be trusted. Particularly around guys like us."
Ryan didn't want to believe that. "Some women can be trusted," he said. "Like the woman I'm marrying."
He smiled as the old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage he'd hired to drive him and his bride to the reception came into view outside, festooned with ribbons and bows and still more flowers. The horses' clop-clopping hooves were a steady counterpoint to the organ music that began playing again outside the vestibule. This time, the song carried a note of expectancy. Hearing it, Ryan felt a new rush of optimism.
"You know, all I've ever wanted," he said, "is a woman who will always smile when I walk into the room. Not one of those phony smiles, either, but a really big—"
"Try flashing your wallet. That ought to do the trick."
Jackson grinned. Ryan ignored him.
"A really big, really genuine smile," he went on semi-wistfully, suddenly needing to be understood. Especially on this important day. "A woman who will remember exactly what I like for breakfast every day—"
Ryan took away his friend's martini flask and set it beside an arrangement of peonies, safely out of reach until after the ceremony. Walking back to the window, he continued:
"—and who will drop whatever she's doing, no matter what it is, when I want to kiss her."
"Now you're talking!"
"Look, I'm not asking for the moon, here. I want what everybody wants," Ryan finished with a shrug. "True love."
"Awww, stop!" Making a sappy face, Jackson clutched his chest. The ace of hearts and several more playing cards poked from beneath his spread fingers. "You're breaking me up, here. I think I'm going to cry."
Ryan grinned. "Save it for the wedding, hankie-boy. There won't be a dry eye in the house."
"Hmmm. Maybe not. Not if you've really found what you're looking for."
Jackson went back to his cards, frowning in pretend concentration. In reality, he pretty much saved his attention for good times, beautiful women, and fast cars. He and Ryan had always been alike in that way—or at least, they had been, until Ryan's rushed engagement two months ago.
"And especially not—" Jackson laid out an ace of clubs, and gave a pretend sniffle. "—if you don't give me my martini back."
Feeling the time draw near, Ryan checked his tux in the mirror. Ran a hand through his freshly-cut, straight blond hair. Mentally reviewed the painstakingly detailed and shockingly expensive nuptial arrangements he'd made. And hoped like hell it would all be worth it in the end.
Jackson was wrong. True love wasn't dead. And Ryan wouldn't be fleeced. He wouldn't be taken advantage of by a gold-digging socialite-wannabe, the way so many of his friends and acquaintances had been. Especially not with every last person he knew there to witness it.
The vestibule door opened, and the wedding planner called out a greeting. At the sound, Ryan turned away from the window...and saw a sudden look of absolute horror pass over his groomsman's face. What the hell?
"Looks like you forgot one thing on that lovey-dovey wish list of yours," Jackson said slowly, staring out the opened window. He nodded toward it, just over Ryan's shoulder. "Cluing in your bride-to-be."
"Look for yourself. Ah, man. I'm sorry."
Dread trickled into the spaces that had been so filled with optimism moments before. At Jackson's finger-whirling-in-the-air prompting, Ryan turned.
Glimpsing movement in the church yard, he walked closer to the window. It felt as though he were moving in slow motion. Sea breeze ruffled his immaculate groom-worthy suit, and blew a hank of hair into his eyes. Brushing it impatiently away, he squinted outside.
And then he saw it.
Or, more accurately, saw them. His fiancée, with her long white wedding dress hiked up in one perfectly-manicured hand. One of his groomsmen—a hotshot lawyer from his father's firm, who'd recently struck gold writing legal thrillers on the side, à la Grisham, and, according to Mimi, simply had to be included in the wedding party to insure appropriate coverage in the society papers. And with them, a gray-haired man whom Ryan only vaguely recognized.
The wedding planner used her clipboard to wedge her way beside him. She pressed her fingers to the glass above their heads.
"They've kidnapped my minister!" she cried.
Ah-hah, Ryan thought numbly. So that's who that was.
As he watched, the trio alighted the carriage, helped in the task by the driver Ryan had paid for—and had tipped in advance, in case his marital happiness had made him overlook such ordinary concerns as good service bonuses.
Sucker, rolled through his mind.
He shoved the window higher. It thunked against the frame, the glass within shuddering beneath the impact. Driven by some force he didn't understand, Ryan propped his hands on the ledge and stuck his head outside.
He shouted his fiancée's name.
She looked up, the wind making her veil flutter around her face and blonde hair in a merry fashion. She recognized him, and had the audacity to smile.
Ryan felt sucker-punched. He opened his mouth, but couldn't seem to make anything emerge, aside from a strangled repetition of her name.
Her name, the initials of which had been painstakingly and expensively embroidered along with his own on everything from silver soup spoons to three-hundred thread count sheet sets to custom Crane stationary...all things Ryan had imagined would last them for the rest of their happy lives together.
As the fake Grisham looked on lovingly, his runaway bride glanced down, fiddling with something. Her engagement ring, Ryan saw when she'd wrenched it loose. The showy, two-carat square-cut diamond that embellished it sparkled gaily in her hand. Was she planning to hurl it back to him, or...?
She dropped it into her tiny white satin bag, and snapped shut the fastening with evident satisfaction. Then she grabbed something else from near her feet, and hurled it from the carriage.
Beside him, the wedding planner shrieked. "Her shoes!" she wailed as the things landed on the grass beside the carriage. "How dare she? I crawled on my hands and knees through dozens of designer showrooms to find those Jimmy Choo shoes for her!"
Sympathetically, Ryan patted the wedding planner on the shoulder of her tailored blush-pink suit. Within seconds, he felt slightly less compassionate, though—the woman's screech had brought guests running from within the church proper, and his friends and family crowded up beside and behind him, craning their necks to get a view of what was happening.
Outside, his ex-fiancée didn't notice. Or didn't care. Instead, she snuggled up to her new catch (sucker, rolled again through Ryan's mind), said something to the driver, and waved goodbye.
The last thing Ryan saw of her was her bridal veil, which she snatched hastily from her head as though she couldn't wait to be free of it. Free of him. Four feet of handmade Brussels lace sailed through the air, tumbled in the ocean breeze...and landed atop his white BMW roadster, parked outside the church.
So that was that, then.
"Baaaa," Jackson bleated to no one in particular. "Fleeced."
~ ~ ~
April Finnegan was doomed.
She wasn't sure how it had happened, or how long it would last. Or even if there was a cure at all. But from the minute she'd opened her door to find her outrageously cheerful, good-for-nothing older brother standing on the doorstep of her sunny Saguaro Vista, Arizona apartment—only hours after she'd been deserted by her just-married former roommate—April had been sure it was true.
Doomed, doomed, doomed. She was doomed like a shoe shopper with unlimited store credit, like a chocoholic in a room full of Cadbury Easter bunnies. Like a woman with prickly unshaven legs, cozying up to a hunk after a great, great date. And since bad things always came in threes—and April had experienced only the first two so far—she was waiting with unbated breath for the big número tres to drop on her at any instant.
Oh, she-d survive Mickey Finnegan's untimely couch-crashing, April figured. For at least as long as it lasted, until he took off for parts unknown again like the flighty Finnegan he was. She certainly had before.
And it wasn't so much her ex-roommate Paige's leaving that bothered her, as the fact that now she was stuck with twice the rent, one-hundred percent less camaraderie, and a lonely, nearsighted cat to console. But still...for a person who prided herself on unpredictability—and April did—there was nevertheless such a thing as too much uncertainty.
What, she wondered, would the big, fat, other-shoe dropping-type disaster be? And when would it strike?
To distract herself from the question, she retreated to her usual retreat.
Because where other people found their salvation in bibles, bottles, network television, and other things that required a minimum of thinking and a maximum of letting outside forces decide things for them, April found hers in butter, flour, sugar, and eggs, and a recipe complicated enough to demand the best performance from her and all her ingredients. For the one thing April excelled at—aside from making friends, hitting a wicked grounder, and scouring the flea market for bargains—was baking. It was her job, her calling. With any luck, it would also be her means out of the shiftless Finnegan trap she'd been born into.
So at dawn on the morning after the day of the doomed revelation, she dove headfirst into measuring, stirring, and shaping. Alone in the expansive professional kitchen of Ambrosia, small-town Saguaro Vista's most exclusive (and only) gourmet catering company and bakery, April stacked profiteroles on petit fours, muffins on macaroons. She sprinkled streusel and cut out cookies. And by the time she was dusted in flour from her long auburn curls to the tips of her vintage shoes, she was three-quarters of the way to feeling like herself again.
With a sigh of satisfaction, she boosted herself onto the just-cleaned worktable and sat with her bare legs dangling. All around her, the stainless steel ovens threw off heat, the heavy-duty stand mixers hulked at the ready, and the marble pastry counter gleamed in the early-morning sunlight. From this vantage point, April felt like a gawky nine-year-old, all elbows and knees and sweet-tooth smiles. And she liked it. It was sure as hell preferable to feeling doomed.
She lifted her mug of mint tea and fished out the tea bag, setting it aside to save for her second cup, as was her habit. She swigged. The zingy scent of peppermint reached her moments before she tasted the tea, and she swallowed with a sensualist's appreciation of both.
"Oh, wow!" Jamie Barrett said beside her, her mouth filled with a bite of pain au chocolat—chocolate filled croissant.
Her friend had arrived between the orange poppy seed scones and the miniature carrot cakes, and had been sampling ever since. Already dressed in the black pants and white shirt she'd wear during her shift at the beauty salon next door, Jamie chewed and swallowed with a blissful expression.
"I swear," she said, using her nimble hairstylist's fingers to tear off another bite, "you just keep getting better and better. This is incredible!"
April grinned. "Almost orgasmic, isn't it?"
Jamie coughed, slapping herself on the chest. "What?"
"You heard me." April's grin widened. Maybe she couldn't control her upbringing, her past, her wayward brother, her roommate's desertion due to "true love," or the dreaded third-disaster-to-come, but she could still get a rise out of her long-time pal. "Almost orgasmic. Really delicious."
"Oh, baby, baby," Jamie deadpanned, blowing a kiss to the croissant. "Don't stop!"
Laughing, April slid from the worktable and removed the roomy bib-style apron that covered her vintage Fifties-style yellow shirtwaist dress and the silver link belt she'd slung loosely at her hips. Then she went to wash up at the sink. There, she noticed a dollop of carrot cake batter on her comfy black and white saddle shoes, and wet a paper towel to clean it.
"At the rate my luck's running," she said as she bent over and began scrubbing, "those croissants are as close to 'yes, baby, don't stop!' as I'm going to get for a while. Unfortunately for me, pastries don't offer up good pillow talk afterward."
She paused, still bent over her shoe to adjust the cuff on her bobby socks. "I mean, what would that be like, anyway? 'Oooh, baby,'" April mimicked. "'I loved the way you took off my wrapper. I crumbled at your touch?'"
Jamie laughed. "'Glaze me. Frost me. Roll me in sugar,'" she suggested. "'I'm all yours!'"
"'S'il vous plait, come on,'" April pleaded, gesturing with one outflung hand as she spoke in her best bawdy-pastry voice—a French-inspired baritone she imagined might suit a chocolate-filled croissant. "'Your hip circumference be damned! We must be togezer again, cherie. Soon!'"
"See, now?" asked a familiar masculine voice behind her. "If you'd let someone make an honest woman of you, you wouldn't have to worry about things like dirty-talking desserts."
Straightening, April flipped her low-slung ponytail over her shoulder and grinned up at her boss, Mark Wright, who'd just entered the kitchen carrying a box of supplies and a clipboard. He was wearing a slightly disapproving—if good-natured—expression, and as he set down his box, she noticed his neatly-pressed khakis, button-down shirt, and ever-present necktie, too.
Although he was only a few years older than her and Jamie, his "Leave It To Beaver" outlook on life needed serious work. I mean, really. Who said make an honest woman of you anymore?
Still, she liked Mark. And so long as he hadn't progressed to wearing cardigan sweaters and smoking a pipe in Golden Age of TV sitcom-husband style, she figured he was reformable.
"You're right," April agreed. She wadded up the wet paper towel and scored three points tossing it into the furthest waste basket. "Then I'd trade up to a whole new batch of worries. Is he really the one for me? Am I really the one for him? Are we really the ones for each other, or are we kidding ourselves?" She made a face. "Who can tell with this stuff, anyway? I say, no, thanks."
"It's not all that tough," Jamie disagreed. "People find true love every day, you know."
"Hmmph. You're just indoctrinated to think so." April eyed the ever-present stack of bridal magazines at Jamie's elbow, and raised her eyebrows meaningfully. "In the non-glossy, non-monthly, non-one-thousand-and-one-hot-honeymoon-spots world, true love is hard to find."
"I don't buy it," Mark said, shaking his head. The gesture made his neatly-combed Ken-doll hair shine in the halogen lighting. "I sell tenth, twenty-fifth, even fiftieth anniversary party cakes every week. People are still finding true love, still getting married, and still living happily ever after. It could happen to you, too."
April snorted. "Look, I hate to be the cynic in this pie-in-the-sky crowd, but I can't even find a man who will call before Thursday for a Friday night date, much less one who's able to mention the 'M' word without breaking out in hives. Sorry, you two, but chivalry is dead, romance is dead, and I'm afraid true love is dead, too. People are just too selfish these days."
"Selfish?" Mark said, looking affronted.
"Dead?" Jamie cried, looking wounded.
"Just one girl's opinion," April told them, holding up her palms. "Don't shoot the messenger."
She shrugged, then went to the box of supplies Mark had carried in and flipped open the cardboard flaps on top. In addition to baking for Ambrosia, she'd been lobbying Mark for a self-created position as community relations manager, and was trying to involve herself in all aspects of the company in preparation for it.
Any day now, April was sure, Mark would cave. She would get the community relations position—and the job security that was bound to follow, soon after. Then she'd have a shot at living happily ever after...and it would be a happily ever after she could really get behind, too. One earned through hard work, not serendipity. One found through ingenuity and creativity, not via blind faith and hoping. Because what April Finnegan believed in—aside from doing all she could to escape her flighty Finnegan destiny—was making the absolute most of what she'd been given.
Including the hot pink, impossibly curvy glasses she'd just uncovered beneath the packing material.
Carefully lifting one from its foam peanut nest, April held it toward Mark. She raised her eyebrow.
"Special-ordered from Phoenix for the Shaeffer-Nieman wedding," he explained. "They want to serve frozen luv-o-ritas at the reception."
"Ah. That explains it."
As the person who was in charge of catering the bride's upcoming bachelorette party, April was more than familiar with the engaged couple—and their "unique" ideas. She looked at the profiled likenesses of the soon-to-be Shaeffer-Niemans etched in turquoise on the hot pink glass. Multicolored hearts bounced from their images, trimmed somehow in glitter.
"These," she announced sadly, "are in incredibly poor taste."
"Poor taste?" Jamie scoffed. "This, from the woman whose favorite chair was salvaged from the not-a-chance pile at an estate sale in Scottsdale?"
"Hey." April raised her chin. "I can't help it if they didn't see that vintage Barcolounger's value. All it needed was a little stuffing and a good cleaning."
"And a ritualized burning," Jamie muttered.
"Har, har," April said, making a face.
"Is this the same woman," Mark asked, taking the glass from her and grimacing slightly as he replaced it in the box, "whose headboard is an old wagon wheel from the side of the road someplace?"
"Someplace historically significant," April informed them. Sheesh. Was there something wrong with being frugal? "Besides, I had permission from the historical site, and it looked great once I'd finished painting it."
"Once you'd finished—" Jamie stopped abruptly and gawked at Mark. "How'd you wind up in her bedroom looking at her headboard, anyway?"
He blushed. Actually blushed. "Ahh—"
April leapt into the fray. "It was that night of hot, steamy, passionate passion we shared, wasn't it, Mark?" she asked, grinning, glad to be out from under the gun herself. She winked and put her arm around his shoulders, urging his self-consciously inflexible body closer.
"When was that?" she asked chummily, looking up at him. "Last Tuesday? Or was it Wednesday? I'm not sure, because I had Fettuccine Alfredo at Morenci's one of those nights, and I'm positive I wouldn't have subjected my wild secret lover to a garlic extravaganza. So—"
"I saw it when I helped her move in with Paige," Mark interrupted, ducking away from her arm and shielding himself with his clipboard. He gave both her and Jamie an exasperated look. "It was all perfectly innocent. The headboard wasn't even attached to the bed at the time."
"Kinky," Jamie said.
"It wasn't kinky! It was relocating."
"Awww," April pouted. "Call it what you like, dreamboat. But you're ruining my reputation, here." She tweaked his cheek affectionately. "If you keep that up, I might never find that so-called true love you two keep yammering on about."
As if she was going to, anyway.
Suddenly, Jamie and Mark exchanged a look. A very meaningful, very mysterious, very lightbulb-over-the-head look. A look that made April nervous—the same way a checkbook in her infamously spendthrift, check-bouncing mother's hands made her nervous. In fact, if she hadn't known better, she'd have thought her best friend and her boss were about to hatch a scheme that would make her very, very sorry.
But all they did was share that look. And then turn to her.
"If you found it, how would you know it was true love? Or if it wasn't?" Jamie asked. "Just for argument's sake, of course."
"Uh, well, uh—" Noticing Mark's intent—and suspicious—interest, April was stuck for an answer at first. Not because she had the hots for Mark, despite her teasing earlier, but because she was suddenly afraid that Mark—when he was wearing that expression, at least—would settle for nothing less than the absolute truth. The very idea scared her.
So she prevaricated. "I guess I would just know. I guess."
"Okay." Driven to a slightly more thorough answer by their combined doggedness, April relented. "I guess...I would know it wasn't true love if he didn't take me seriously."
"Good, good." Jamie made flapping motions with her hands, urging her onward. She glanced at Mark. "What else?"
"Well, he'd have to get along with Calypso," April went on, mentioning her non-pedigree, slightly neurotic, red and white tabby cat—which was probably sleeping, right this minute, atop her shiftless brother Mickey's feet. "Otherwise, if he couldn't even nurture a cat, I'd be too scared to have kids with him. Someday, that is."
Mark brightened. "Kids? That's encouraging."
April let that pass. "And he'd have to have a sense of humor about things, you know? Like if I came home all floury from baking, he wouldn't freak out and whip out the Dustbuster."
"Like Reggie," she and Jamie said in unison.
Like all of April's former boyfriends—and Jamie's, too—Reggie had been discussed, ad nauseam, over many too many bottles of Bud. Ladies' night at the Saguaro Vista bowling alley kept them supplied with both feminine solidarity and two-for-one drinks.
They laughed. Feeling introspective now, April went on:
"And he'd have to want to pursue me, too. To woo me." The old-fashioned word was utterly unlike her, but it fit, somehow. "I mean, a bouquet of flowers isn't totally out of the question, once in a while."
Jamie nodded, frowning thoughtfully.
So did Mark. Equally thoughtfully.
Shrugging off their combined...thoughtfulness, April let her imagination take flight. She was picking up steam now.
"He'd hold my hand when we walked," she said. "Whisper endearments in my ear in a crowded room. He'd take me in his arms and kiss me, even in the middle of a rainstorm." She'd always thought rain was romantic. "And he'd—"
"Rainstorm?" Jamie asked. Her hands flew to her carefully-coiffed, close-cropped dark hair. "No way."
"Uh-uh," Mark echoed, shaking his head. His gaze slipped to his brown suede loafers. "No way."
April looked at them both, surprised. She threw up her hands. "See? Even you two diehard romantics aren't buying this. I should've known this 'true love' thing was doomed. Real life just doesn't make room for romance."
But somehow, she realized now, she wished it did. Having pulled out her ideas of a wonderfully romantic hunk-turned-soul mate, April found she was reluctant to tuck them away again. Wistfully, she looked toward the Shaeffer-Nieman wedding glasses, and stroked the protruding rim of the one Mark had begun putting away. Was it possible?
Nah, she decided. The day true love entered her life was the day the Finnegan clan paid their bills on time, bounced not a single check, kept steady jobs, and had simultaneously-functioning cars to drive. In short, it was a day that would never come.
"You might be surprised someday," Mark said, shaking his head as he picked up his box and headed for his office.
"You just never know," Jamie agreed, hefting her bridal magazines for the trek to the salon next door. "Keep your mind open, April."
"Oh, I will," April said cheerfully, following her friend to the front of the bakery with a tray of scones for the glass display case. "I will."
The door swooshed shut behind Jamie, leaving April alone.
"I will," she said to the silence. She leaned an elbow on the countertop and propped her chin in her hand. "I'll keep my mind open...and my heart untouched."
Because even if she found someone to love, he'd have quite a hurdle to jump in accepting the bunch of misfit Finnegans who were her family...who were what she'd likely turn out to be, in the end. After all, biology was destiny, wasn't it? She'd heard that someplace. And although she struggled mightily against it, April figured it could catch up with her at any moment. Just like that.
Just like the número tres disaster, too. Because just as she turned away from the counter to fetch more baked goods, April heard a bellow come from the direction of Mark's office. It was followed swiftly by a crash, a swear word, and a loud, no-nonsense summons from her boss.
If this was Mark's reaction to seeing what she thought he was seeing...well, it looked like the other shoe had finally dropped.
(end of excerpt)