The bouquet shot toward her head like a spaceship launched at the moon.
Emma Grant had no time to deflect the missile. She tangled her fingers into the luscious petals of the peonies, roses, and hydrangea, rousing fragrant floral scents as the bouquet grazed her face. When she was in wedding planner mode, she would have taken the time to appreciate the freshness of the blooms, but tonight she was also a bridesmaid and best friend and totally unhappy about her current predicament.
Flowers fisted in her hand, Emma whirled to face her other best friend and maid of honor, Connie Reyes, who with a subtle hip check, had knocked Emma straight into the path of the flying tussie mussie. “I thought you were my friend!”
“Totally,” Connie said with a broad smile and waltzed off to the side of the dance floor to where Carlo da Costa, Emma’s caterer extraordinaire and longtime man crush, stood with some of his wait staff.
Her friends thought Carlo was the man to give Emma her happily-ever-after, except it wasn’t possible that someone like Carlo could love someone like her. She was broken inside and had been for some time while Carlo was everything good in this world. A loving son and a supportive brother. A go-to-guy for her and so many others. But a lover? Even though her insides ignited at the thought of making love with the incredibly handsome Carlo, Emma knew it could only lead to misery on way too many levels.
He was her business partner of sorts and she valued how well they worked together. They had even talked about forming an event planning business more than once so Emma could leave the bridal salon where she currently worked and run her own company. Being partners would also allow Carlo to expand his catering business to do more events. Not to mention that he was her best friend and she couldn’t imagine not having him in her life, but she was certain that was what would happen if they tried to go from friends to lovers and it didn’t work out. Just like her parents’ marriage had turned into a total nightmare.
But Emma’s fears weren’t keeping Connie from trying to drag Carlo into the center of the dance floor for the next part of the wedding ritual. He protested at first and as all eyes settled on him as he balked, embarrassment engulfed her. His hesitation confirmed to Emma that changing the nature of their relationship was not necessarily something he wanted to do either.
Others soon joined in to offer Connie assistance and Carlo finally relented, although clearly reluctant. The handsome caterer stood with the other single men, and as the groom prepared his garter toss, Emma closed her eyes and mumbled a prayer beneath her breath.
“Dear Lord, please be good to me,” she said and half-opened her eyes to watch.
Apparently God wasn’t listening since the garter flew across the air, and like a horseshoe tossed at a ring, the circle of baby blue satin ribbon and beige lace landed on Carlo’s index finger, earning hoots and shouts from all gathered at the perfect catch.
Emma groaned and popped her eyes wide open as Carlo stood there, dangling the garter for all to see. A stain of color marred his cheeks as he peeked at her with a chagrined smile.
The heat of a blush erupted all across her face and up to her ears. She half glanced at Connie who had returned to stand by her and Emma said, “I will kill you for this. When you least expect it.”
Connie couldn’t stifle her chuckle, and when the groom’s brother and best man Jonathan Pierce strolled to her friend’s side, Connie high-fived Jonathan. It had obviously been a conspiracy to get her and Carlo and together. Connie murmured something to him that Emma couldn’t quite hear as the band launched into a sexy riff to continue the wedding tradition. Carlo sauntered over, garter dangling from his finger as someone placed a chair for her to sit on in the middle of the makeshift dance floor.
“The quicker you get it over with, the easier it will be,” Emma thought, hurried out, and unceremoniously plopped onto the chair.
The sexy music continued as Carlo kneeled before her and mouthed “Don’t worry.” In deference to the fancy event being held at the Sinclair beachfront mansion, he was dressed in a tuxedo. The black of the tux emphasized the deep brown of his thick wavy hair. The electric white shirt was the perfect foil against olive skin that still bore the remnants of a summer tan. He smiled at her, his teeth toothpaste bright and perfect. The smile was brilliant and transformed the chiseled features of his face. Made his chocolate brown eyes gleam with a mix of amusement and awkwardness.
It was way too easy to picture him as the groom. Her groom, but that was an impossible wish. As his gaze locked with hers, she detected something different for a moment. Something dangerous that she tried to convince herself wasn’t there. There was no way that was there, she told herself.
She silently pleaded with him not to make the situation worse. Ever the gentleman, he heeded her plea and kept it clean as she looked up toward the inky night sky to avoid watching him. His touch was deferential while he slipped the lacy fabric past her shoe and ankle, but even the faintest whisper of his rough palm against her skin had her trembling inside and heat racing across her body. He moved the garter up a little higher to her calf and paused, forcing Emma to look at him to find out the reason for his delay.
Carlo grinned sexily and the fire at her core ignited into a five-alarm blaze. He was just so damn gorgeous, and it was impossible not to imagine doing more with him. He inched the garter past her knee, his palm teasing her smooth skin, but stopped there despite the entreaties of the single men to go ever higher. He wagged his head, shook his finger in a no-way gesture, and tenderly draped Emma’s gown back over her legs.
Emma met his gaze once more, thankful, but this time it was impossible to miss that his look was filled with yearning. With that emotion she had maybe hoped for and dreaded at the same time. And then Carlo did something totally unexpected and decidedly risky. He wrapped an arm around her waist, urged her to her feet, and slowly drew her close.
Her knees trembled and her heart pounded so loudly, she barely heard the music and cheers from those who’d maybe had a little too much to drink during the festivities. Carlo steadied her, keeping his arm around her waist as he cradled her jaw. Slowly he leaned toward her and tilted her face up with the gentlest pressure.
She could have backed away. Could have stopped him, but truthfully, she didn’t want him to stop. She inched up on her tiptoes to meet his lips.
He kissed her like there was no tomorrow. His lips were hot, so hot. His mouth mobile against hers. His body hard everywhere as he held her near and she melted into him, letting herself savor the moment because it was one that could never be repeated. No matter how much she was enjoying it. No matter how much she wished it would be repeated. No matter how much she wished there could be more between them.
When Carlo finally ended the kiss, Emma stood there, dazed and a little unsteady, until Carlo bent and whispered, “It was totally worth the wait, meu amor.”
It had been, but she couldn’t admit that, couldn’t hope that things could change between them, so she playfully shoved him away to downplay what had just happened because Emma never intended to be a bride.
That prompted yet more catcalls from the single men, and with a shrug and a rueful grin, Carlo left the floor and started giving instructions to his catering crew again, while Emma stomped toward Connie who stood at the edge of the dance floor, clearly pleased with her accomplishment.
Emma thrust the tussie-mussie bouquet against Connie’s chest and repeated her earlier warning. “You’re a dead woman.”
She whirled on one heel which dug down into the grass of the mansion’s great lawn, making her wobble for a moment before she righted herself and strode toward the beachfront, needing some air and a moment to regain her composure before she had to face Carlo again. But as she marched toward the short boardwalk over the dunes, she couldn’t help but reach up and run her fingers across her lips. She closed her eyes and remembered the kiss. The way his body had fit to hers perfectly. For a moment, just a moment, she let herself believe and then she took a deep breath and returned to reality.
She was a bridesmaid and a wedding planner, and as a friend and a professional, she had a lot to do before the night was over. But it was sure to be a night that she would not forget for some time to come.
In some ways Sea Kiss was a typical Jersey Shore town. During the summer months the population swelled five-fold thanks to the invasion of the part-time residents and tourists that the locals referred to as Bennys. There were varying explanations for how that term had come about. Some said that in the early 1900s a now non-existent train line had run to Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York and the tickets had borne the initials of those towns. Still others claimed it was because those tourists would flash their cash in the faces of the locals, Benny referring to Ben Franklin on the tourists’ $100 bills.
For many years Emma had been a Benny and it was only thanks to her friendship with her best friend Maggie Sinclair that the locals had befriended her at first. Maggie was a clam digger as the locals would say. The Sinclair family had deep roots in Sea Kiss, Emma thought as she strolled down Main Street toward the beachfront and the Sinclair home.
The early November day was glorious and unseasonably warm. As she walked down the street and the locals shared friendly smiles and waves with her, it was clear that after nearly nine years of living down the Shore, most townspeople had forgotten Emma’s Benny status and accepted her as one of their own. That acceptance had its good points and bad, the latter being the intense interest that locals had about their fellow full-time residents.
As she neared the heart of Sea Kiss some of the shopkeepers were taking advantage of the nice weather to have some coffee in front of the bakery before opening their own stores.
“Hey, Em! Why don’t you join us?” called out Sammie, the millennial owner of the town’s surf and skate shop.
“Yes, please sit and chat,” added Jesse, the young widow who owned the cheese shop adjacent to Sammie’s store.
Emma paused, and smiled, their invitation appreciated. “I’d love to, but the ladies are waiting for me at Maggie’s.”
“To plan ‘the most epic wedding ever’ according to Jon,” Sammie said with a chuckle. “Jon” being Jonathan Pierce, the self-made prodigal son surfer dude who had come home to Sea Kiss. Jon was bringing his start-up tech business with him as well as marrying her best friend Connie, she of the hip check that had started the whole bouquet/garter/kiss Carlo problem.
“That’s what Carlo and I plan to do,” she said with a nod, although worry lurked within that she and Carlo had been a little off lately.
“You always do, Emma. The two of you put together the most amazing weddings,” Jesse said and lifted her paper coffee cup in a toast. “I know this one is going to be even more fabulous.”
With a laugh and shake of her head, Emma said, “Not too much pressure considering the wedding’s only weeks away.”
“Is Connie handling it okay? I mean, with moving to Sea Kiss and the baby and all,” Sammie asked, real concern in her voice.
Emma nodded. “She’s doing great and it’ll be nice to have her here. I’d love to keep on chatting, but I’ve got to go,” she said and with a wave, continued the walk toward Maggie’s oceanfront home.
But as she passed the bakery’s front door, Carlo barreled out, his head buried in the leather notebook he used to keep notes. He stopped short as he realized he was about to plow into someone. Bright color stained his cheeks when he saw her.
“Em, hi . . .” he said and awkwardly mangled the notebook in his hands.
“Hi, yourself,” she said and rose on tiptoes to drop a kiss on his cheek, only he had shifted, and she ended up grazing his nose.
“Sorry,” they both said at the same time and did a little shuffle back and forth, almost as if trying to get back into step. It was typical of how things had been out of sync between them lately.
With a grimace, Carlo gestured with the notebook toward the bakery. “I was just dropping off an order for bread for a holiday lunch I’ve got to cater.”
Emma nodded and motioned down Main Street. “I was just headed to Maggie’s.”
“Is that today? I’m sorry, I didn’t –”
She laid a hand on his to both stop his apology and to reassure. “No, the planning meeting is not today, Carlo. We’re just getting together for breakfast.”
Beneath her hand the tension in his body relaxed and spread to the rest of his body. With an easy shrug, he said, “Sorry, again. I seem to be saying that a lot lately.”
He did, but then again, so did she. Even their almost daily calls were filled with hesitant delays and off-putting interruptions instead of the fluid chatter and laughter that she had used to eagerly anticipate.
Wanting things to go back to normal, or as normal as could be given the change the kiss had begun, she squeezed his hand and said, “You never forget a thing, Carlo. That hasn’t changed. It’s why I know I can always count on you.”
He sucked in a deep breath and held it for a second before slowly releasing it, his gaze locked on hers the entire time. “It is why you can count on me, Em. For anything.”
She nodded. “For anything. So I’ll see you tomorrow at Maggie’s?”
He dipped his head. “Tomorrow morning. Nine sharp.”
“Nine it is,” she said and once again rose on tiptoes, this time landing a perfectly chaste kiss on his cheek. But then he shifted, moved downward and brushed a kiss across her lips. It was a barely there kiss that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, only it roused memories of that other kiss. The one that had curled her toes and had her leaning into him, wanting so much more.
Too much more, she thought as she jerked away, feeling the heat that had risen up to her cheeks and ears. Hating that with her pale complexion he was bound to notice the color.
His dimpled grin confirmed that he had, but he playfully tapped her nose and said, “See you tomorrow, meu amor.”
“Tomorrow for sure,” she said and hurried off. But as she took a quick peek back, she caught sight of his determined glance in her direction before he began to chat with Jesse and Sammie. Driving away thoughts of Carlo, she quickened her pace, already running late for breakfast with her friends.
On Ocean Avenue, bright sunlight gleamed off a sea as smooth as glass, but there was a slight chill along the boardwalk from a light ocean breeze.
A chill not unlike the one that would settle between her and Carlo at times ever since that wedding night kiss. A kiss that had unfortunately snared the attention of the locals for a good part of the summer and early fall.
She had been hoping that after the wedding the talk would turn to typical summer things. Which town had won the annual lifeguard contest. How many Bennys had to be pulled from the surf when they ignored the red flag warnings that said it wasn’t safe to swim. Instead, “the kiss” seemed to have taken a life of its own for the better half of the summer since the locals were in love with love and eager to see two of their adopted own find their happily-ever-after.
Hopefully the locals would soon latch instead onto Connie and Jonathan’s upcoming wedding, as well as the baby they’d be having sometime in late spring. She was looking forward to having Connie around more often in addition to Maggie and her other best friend Tracy. The women were like sisters to her, even though they all couldn’t be more different in every which way.
Maggie, whom they teasingly called Mama Maggie, was their rock and the one who everyone went to for advice since she was normally level-headed and responsible. In part it was why her precipitous decision to marry Owen Pierce had shocked all of them. Luckily, it was all working out for her friend.
Connie was the crusader in the group, always watching out for all of them and anyone else who needed help. It was no wonder that she and Jonathan had fallen in love one summer. Everyone could see that Jonathan was like a ship lost at sea that had needed to find the right port to call home. Luckily after years apart Connie and Jonathan had found their way together.
Last but not least, there was Tracy. Drama Queen Tracy, a woman in love with being in love which had resulted in a marriage that had turned out to be a mistake of major proportions. Tracy had looked for love in all the wrong places.
And who are you, Emma? the little voice in her head prodded as Emma neared Maggie’s home.
Emma wished she knew. Like Maggie she often found herself doling out advice to anxious brides and her friends. Like Connie she was there to try and fix any problems that came her way. And she hated to admit it, but like Tracy, she was in love with love. All those traits made her a fabulous wedding planner and friend.
But still not right for Carlo? the little voice in her head challenged.
She ignored the voice as she neared the Sinclair and Pierce mansions which were nestled side-by-side on Ocean Avenue and on the beachfront.
Heart filled with joy that she’d soon be with her friends, she marched up the walk where mums in full bloom lined the path. The bright yellow and pink flowers complimented the joyful colors of the Sinclair’s Victorian “painted lady.”
Visiting the Sinclair home had always made Emma happy, maybe because it had become her second home of sorts. During her college years she and her friends had spent a great deal of time there with Maggie and her live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Patrick, who was a surrogate grandmother to all of them.
Emma was barely halfway up the walk when Maggie flung the door open wide. Her smile was as bright as the sun-filled day and her blue eyes gleamed with happiness. Connie stood beside Maggie, her smile just as radiant. A second later, Tracy’s head popped up behind her other two friends, but there was no real joy there. Tracy’s smile was forced and dark circles, like charcoal smudged across drawing paper, gave testament to sleepless nights.
“Hurry up, slow poke. We’ve been waiting for you,” Maggie called out and urged her on with a sweep of her hand.
Emma picked up her pace and had set no more than a foot beyond the threshold when she was enveloped by the warmth of her friends’ hugs, kisses, and laughter.
She joined in, chuckling and returning the embraces as they tumbled together like playful puppies toward the kitchen at the back of the house. “Did you ladies start drinking early?” she teased when they broke apart and Mrs. Patrick came up to hug her and drop a kiss on her cheek. The older woman smelled of vanilla and maple which boded well for one of her fabulous waffle breakfasts. Emma’s mouth watered in anticipation.
“No drinkie for me, just happy,” Connie singsonged and laid her hand over her belly.
“Me, too,” Maggie said and at everyone’s questioning look, she waved her hands and clarified. “Not preggers, yet. Just really really happy.”
Emma joined the other women in helping set the table for breakfast in a routine that was as in step as a well-choreographed ballet after so many years. Of course, Mrs. Patrick was the choreographer, directing them on anything else that was needed for all of them to sit for breakfast while Maggie continued with her story.
“Not only do I have the most awesome new husband,” she had to pause here so the other women could sigh, “but business is good too. Sales at my family’s suburban stores are way up and the flagship store on Fifth Avenue is packed with families. The store restaurant doesn’t have any empty dining reservations until mid-January. It’s already paid off the costs of renovating and re-opening it,” Maggie gushed without barely taking a breath, excitement in every word.
“That’s such wonderful news, Mags,” Connie said and hugged her friend.
“That is great,” Emma and Tracy chimed in.
A tearful Maggie added, “I couldn’t have done it without you ladies. You’ve been my bedrock through everything.”
“We will always be here for you,” Connie said and embraced Maggie again, a tell-tale glint in Connie’s exotic green-gold eyes. Her hands were laden with the cutlery and napkins to help set the table.
“For each other,” Emma stressed and twined her arm through Tracy’s. Tension radiated from Tracy’s body and it made Emma feel so bad for her dear friend. She glanced up at Tracy who whispered, “I’m okay.”
Emma wouldn’t press, but clearly all was not right in Tracy’s world. It had been painfully obvious to all of them for the better part of a year that no matter how much she put a good face on it, Tracy’s marriage was on the rocks and nothing was making it better–not the marriage counseling or the romantic vacations and date nights. It was part of Emma’s worst fear—making what was supposed to be a lifetime commitment only to discover it was a colossal mistake. Just like what had happened with her parents.
But the little voice in her head countered with thoughts of Carlo, gorgeous amazing Carlo, and how well they worked together and the many ways he made her feel special and loved. It made her wonder why she thought it was impossible to trust—herself most of all. But she did have good reasons, she reminded herself. There was just too much at stake.
She tightened her hold on Tracy’s arm in a gesture meant to reassure before they broke apart to finishing prepping for breakfast. As they worked, they chatted about Connie and Jonathan’s surprise engagement just weeks earlier.
“Did you really propose to him?” Tracy asked, still disbelieving and Emma could understand. Connie had always been the most traditional of them not to mention the most career driven. That she had been the one to do the asking was totally unexpected and thoroughly romantic.
“I did propose to him and it was the hardest thing I ever did, besides quitting my job of course,” Connie said as she laid out the cutlery.
Emma followed her around the table, placing a plate at each setting. “I never pictured you as the Sea Kiss township attorney, but then again, we’ve all been involved in a lot of the local projects, so it seems logical.” Logical being the thing that lasting relationships were built on, not grand gestures and romance, Emma kept to herself.
Connie paused for a moment, considered the comment, and then nodded. “I never pictured it myself, but somehow it felt right. Especially with Jon so determined to move his corporate headquarters here to bring new blood into town. It’s not often you get to be a part of something bigger than life and I’m excited about that.”
Tracy set a tray with assorted fruit juices in the center of the table and asked, “Do you think all the house renovations you guys are doing will be done in time?”
With a shrug, Connie returned to her task and said, “I hope so. Jon’s hired most of the contractors in the area to work on the headquarters, my new office, and the house. The holidays will be nice for those people.”
“Lots of work for lots of people. That’s a good thing for Sea Kiss and folks sure do appreciate it,” Mrs. Patrick said and laid a plate piled high with waffles on the table. Maggie followed and added a dish with a mound of crispy bacon and pork roll and another smaller tray with syrups and a bowl of fresh berries.
“That’s what I hear all around town,” Emma said, hoping the locals would treat her friends kindly, but then again, the Pierce family was clam diggers also.
“That’s the one thing that worries me. The locals and their talk,” Connie admitted as she sat at the table. Connie being an outsider – a Benny -- although she’d been coming to Sea Kiss for nearly the last decade and had worked on many projects to help the town through tough times.
“They don’t mean anything by it,” Mrs. Patrick said at the same time that Emma added with a shrug, “You get used to it.” Emma took a spot beside Connie and soon everyone was seated and helping themselves to the delicious meal Mrs. Patrick had prepared.
“Did you?” Maggie questioned with a pointed arch of her brow in Emma’s direction. That had Emma wondering if Maggie suspected that she and Carlo were still part of the gossip flitting around town.
“It’s just talk and usually nothing major,” Emma replied, trying to avoid where their discussion might go. Every one of her friends was squarely in the Carlo camp and let her regularly know that it was time she do something about him.
Maggie was about to follow-up with another question when Tracy said, “Well I have something major to tell you all. I’m divorcing Bill.”
Momentary surprise created an almost deafening silence in the room, but then the silence was broken by a peppering of questions and comments.
“When?” Connie said.
“Are you sure?” Maggie added.
“I’m so sorry, my girl,” Mrs. Patrick said and laid a reassuring hand over Tracy’s as it rested on the table.
“We’re here for you,” Emma said, not totally surprised by the announcement.
Tracy sucked in a deep breath before the words shot out of her like a volley of gun fire. “When? As soon as you can draw up the papers, Con. Sure, Mags? Never more sure. I’m sorry, too, Mrs. Patrick, but I made a big mistake and nothing I’ve done has helped change that.” With a pause to take another breath, she faced Emma and hugged her hard. “I know you’ll all be here for me. It’s what’s keeping me together.”
Connie and Maggie came over to join the embrace and held Tracy as her body vibrated with pain and tears. “You’ll be okay, Trace. Everything will be okay,” Emma said as she rubbed her friend’s back and then glanced up at Connie and Maggie.
Worry etched their faces, but also determination. Together they’d help Tracy through this and in time her wounds would heal.
That’s what friends did for each other, she thought, and ignored the little voice in her head that said her friends would be there for her as well if she took a chance with Carlo. She worried nothing could ever make things right if she dared to give in to her Carlo obsession and things didn’t work out.
Coward, the little voice in her head shouted, but Emma ignored it as she did so often when it came to Carlo. At least a coward got to live another day.