Bed of roses, p.16

Bed of Roses, page 16

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series


Bed of Roses

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  After a full day of work, during which she'd replayed dozens of Jack details, Emma settled down.

  "We'll be the judge of that. " Laurel took her place in the third-floor parlor, then bit into a slice of Mrs. Grady's exceptional homemade pizza.

  "He didn't do anything wrong. He didn't even say anything wrong. I'm annoyed with myself. "

  "Okay, but you tend to be annoyed with yourself instead of anybody else. Even when the anybody else deserves it. " Mac poured a glass of wine, offered the bottle to Laurel.

  "Nope. Detoxifying massive quantities of tequila. It could take days. "

  "I don't do that. " Emma scowled over her pizza. "That makes me sound like a weenie. "

  "You're not a weenie. You're just tolerant, and you have a sympathetic nature. " Since Emma held up her glass, Mac filled it. "So when you get annoyed with somebody, you mean it. "

  "I'm not a pushover," Emma replied.

  "Just because you're not as mean as we are, doesn't mean you're a pushover," Laurel pointed out.

  "I can be mean. "

  "You can," Mac agreed and gave Emma a bolstering pat on the shoulder. "You have the tools, you have the skills. Mostly you don't have the heart for it. "

  "I - "

  "Being innately nice isn't a character flaw," Parker interrupted. "I like to think we're all innately nice. "

  "Except for me. " Laurel held up her Diet Coke.

  "Yes, except for you. Why don't you just tell us what upset you, Emma?"

  "It's going to sound stupid, even petty. " She brooded into her wine, then down at the candy pink polish on her toes while her friends waited. "It's just that he's so protective of his space, his place. He doesn't actually say anything, but there's this invisible boundary around his area. Except he did say it before. You remember, Mac. "

  "Give me a hint. "

  "When you decided to reorganize your bedroom last winter. The closet thing. You got crazed because Carter left some of his things at your place. And Jack came over, and he agreed with you. He said all those things about what happens when you let somebody you're involved with stake territory. "

  "He was joking, mostly. You got mad," Mac remembered. "Walked out. "

  "He said that women start leaving their things all over the bathroom counter, and then they want a drawer. And before you know it, they take over. As if wanting to leave a toothbrush means you're ready to register at Tiffany. "

  "He freaked because you wanted to leave a toothbrush at his place?" Laurel demanded.

  "No. Yes. Not exactly, because I never said anything about a damn toothbrush. Look, it's like this. Even if we're out somewhere and his place is closer, we come back here. Last night, I asked if I could stay at his place because I needed to be in town in the morning anyway, and he . . . he hesitated. "

  "Maybe his place wasn't in girl-friendly condition," Mac suggested. "He had to think if he'd left any dirty socks or Big Jugs magazines lying around, or if he'd changed the sheets in the last decade. "

  "It wasn't that. His place is always neat, which may be part of the thing. He likes everything where it is. Like Parker. "

  "Hey. "

  "Well, you do," Emma said, but with a smile that held both love and apology. "It's just the nature. The thing is, you'd be okay if a guy slept over, maybe left a toothbrush. You'd just put the toothbrush in some proper space. "

  "Which guy? Can I have a name, an address, a photograph?"

  Emma relaxed enough to laugh. "In theory. Anyway, over breakfast I mentioned I was hitting the market, and since he was out of eggs and milk, I could pick some up for him. And there it was again. That same sort of uh-oh before the no, thanks. But the killer was when he came upstairs. I was putting on my makeup and, beat me with a stick, had my stuff out on the counter. And he got this look. Annoyed and . .

  . wary. I told you it was going to sound stupid. "

  "It doesn't," Parker corrected. "It made you feel unwelcome and intrusive. "

  "Yes. " Emma shut her eyes. "Exactly. I don't think he meant to, or that he's even fully aware, but - "

  "It doesn't matter. In fact, the unconscious slight's worse. "

  "Yes!" Emma repeated, and shot Parker a grateful look. "Thank you. "

  "What did you do about it?" Laurel demanded.


  "Yes, do, Em. Such as tell him to get over himself, it's a toothbrush or a tube of mascara. "

  "He went to work and I spent a half hour making sure I hadn't left so much as a flake of that mascara in his precious space. "

  "Oh yeah, that'll teach him," Laurel added. "I'd've stripped off my bra, left it hanging over his shower, left him a sarcastic love note in lipstick on the mirror. Oh, oh, and I'd have gone out and bought the economy-sized box of tampons and left them on the counter. That would get the point across. "

  "Wouldn't that be making his point?"

  "No, because he has no point. You're sleeping together. Whoever's bed is in play, the other party requires some of the basics on hand. Do you get wigged out when he leaves his toothbrush or his razor at your place?"

  "He doesn't. Ever. "

  "Oh, come on. Don't tell me he never forgets to - "

  "Never. "

  "Well, Jesus. " Laurel slumped back. "Obsessive much?"

  Mac raised her hand, offered a sheepish smile. "I'm just going to say I was kind of that way. Not as - okay, obsessive. I would forget things or leave things at Carter's, and he'd do the same. But that's what started me off that day you're talking about, Em. His jacket, his shaving kit, his whatever, mixed up with my stuff. It wasn't the stuff, it was what it meant. He's here. He's really here, and it's not just sex. It's not just casual. It's real. " Mac shrugged, spread her hands. "I panicked. I had this amazing man in love with me, and I was scared. Jack's probably feeling some of that. "

  "I haven't said anything about love. "

  "Maybe you should. " Parker shifted to tuck up her feet. "It's easier to know how the cards should be played when they're on the table. If he doesn't know what you're feeling, Emma, how can he take those feelings into consideration?"

  "I don't want him to take my feelings into consideration. I want him to feel what he feels, be what he is. If he didn't and wasn't, I wouldn't be in love with him in the first place. " She sighed and took a sip of wine.

  "Why did I ever think being in love would be wonderful?"

  "It is once you work out the kinks," Mac told her.

  "Part of the problem is I already know him so well I pick up on all the little . . . " She huffed out a breath, sipped more wine. "I think I have to stop being so sensitive, and stop romanticizing everything. "

  "You have to feel what you feel, be what you are. "

  When Parker tossed her words back at her, Emma blinked. "I guess I do, don't I? And I guess I should probably have an actual conversation with Jack about this. "

  "I like my economy-sized box of tampons better. It requires no words. " Laurel shrugged. "But if you've got to be all mature about it. "

  "I don't really want to, but I got tired of sulking about halfway through the day. I might as well see how a reasonable conversation works out. Next week, I think. Maybe we both need a little space. "

  "We should have a man-free, work free night once a month. "

  "We pretty much do," Mac reminded Laurel.

  "But that's because it just happens, which is good. But now that half of us are hooked up with men, we should formalize it. An estrogen revival. "

  "No men, no work. " Emma nodded. "That sounds - "

  Parker's phone beeped. She glanced at the display. "Willow Moran, first Saturday in June. Shouldn't take long. Hi, Willow!" she said cheerfully as she rose and stepped out of the room. "No, no problem at all. That's what I'm here for. "

  "Well, almost no work. And more pizza for me. " Laurel took a second slice. Despite a few interruptions, Emma thought the eve
ning had been just what she'd needed. A little space, a little time with friends. She let herself into her house feeling pleasantly tired. As she started upstairs she went through her schedule for the next few days. She'd barely have time to catch her breath, she realized. And that, too, was just what she needed.

  After crossing the room, she picked up the phone she'd deliberately left behind and saw she had a voice mail from Jack. Her spirits took a quick jump. So quick, she told herself to set the phone down again. It couldn't be anything urgent or he'd have called the main house. It could wait until morning.

  And who was she kidding?

  She sat on the side of the bed to listen.

  Hi. Sorry I missed you. Listen, Del and I are going to work on our further corruption of Carter and drag him to a game on Sunday. I thought I might come by sometime on Saturday. Maybe I can give you a hand. I could return this morning's favor and fix you breakfast before we kidnap Carter. Give me a call when you get a chance. I'm going to work on some drawings for your place, so . . . Thinking about you.

  What are you wearing?

  It made her laugh. He always could make her laugh, she thought. It was a nice message. Considerate, affectionate, funny.

  What else did she want?

  Everything, she admitted. She wanted it all.

  S HE LET IT WAIT. EMMA TOLD HERSELF SHE WAS JUST TOO BUSY for that mature conversation. May meant a full slate of weddings, bridal showers, and Mother's Day. When she wasn't neck deep in flowers, she was planning the next design.

  With her schedule, it simply made more sense for Jack to come to her, when it worked for both of them. She told herself to be grateful she was involved with a man who didn't complain about her working weekends, the long hours - and who could be counted on to lend a hand if he was around. On a stormy afternoon in May she worked alone. Blessedly. Her ears might have been ringing from the echoes of Tink's and Tiffany's chatter, but now the rolls of thunder, the whoosh of rain and wind soothed.

  She finished the maid of honor's bouquet, then stood for a moment to stretch. Turning, she jumped like a rabbit when she saw Jack.

  Her squeal of shock bubbled into laughter as she slammed her hand to her heart. "God! You scared me. "

  "Sorry. Sorry. I knocked, yelled out, but it's hard to hear over the wrath of God. "

  "You're soaked. "

  "It's probably because of the rain. " He ran a hand through his hair, scattering drops. "Killed my last on-site meeting, so I took a chance and swung by. Nice," he added, nodding at the bouquet.

  "It is, isn't it? I was just about to put it in the cooler and start on the bride's. Why don't you get some coffee, dry off. "

  "Exactly what I hoped to hear. " He stepped up to kiss her, brush a hand down her back. "I brought the drawings over for you to look at. When you get a chance. Weather permitting, they'll start on Mac's place Monday morning. Early. Be prepared. "

  "That's exciting. Do they know?"

  "I stopped in the studio first. You want coffee?"

  "No, thanks. "

  She made the trip to the cooler and back, then settled down with the flowers, her tools, and the picture she wanted to create in her head.

  She glanced up when he came back in. "I've never really watched you work, on this part. Will it bug you?"

  "No. Sit down. Talk to me. "

  "I saw your sister today. "


  "We ran into each other in town. Don't you need a picture or a sketch?"

  "I often use both, but this one's . . . " She tapped a finger on her temple. "White spray roses, this pale viburnum for accents. Slight cascade, which will be both sweet and romantic when I coax these majolicas into full bloom. "

  He watched as she clipped and wired, and thunder boomed. "I thought you said it was a bouquet. "

  "It is. "

  "Why the vase?"

  "I've soaked the foam, attached the holder. See this part?" She angled the vase. "I keep that anchored in the vase so I can work the flowers in, get the right shape, the right cascade. "

  "What do you do when you have the others working in here with you?"


  "What, you're all lined up here? Assembly-line method?"

  "Yes, but no. We're all sort of lined up here, but we'd all be working on whatever arrangement I assigned. It's not like I do so much, then pass the bouquet to Tink. "

  She worked on in the quiet punctuated by thunder and rain.

  "You need an L-shaped in here. " He scanned the space again, the tools, the holding tubs. "Maybe a U's better. With over-and under-counter bins and drawers. You were primarily solo when I initially designed this space. You've outgrown it. Plus you need space under for a rolling bin, for your compost, another for nonbio waste. Do you ever have clients back here when you're working, or one of the others is working?"

  She sucked the thumb a stray thorn pricked. "Sometimes, sure. "

  "Okay. "

  He got up, leaving Emma frowning after him.

  He came back, soaked again, with a notebook she assumed he'd gotten out of his car. "Just keep working," he told her. "I just want to draw up some adjustments for what I've already done. We're going to want to move that wall. "

  "Move?" Her attention arrowed to him. "The wall?"

  "Bump it out, open up your work and display areas. Better flow, and more efficient work space. Too much for a solo operation, but . . . Sorry. " He glanced up from his drawing. "Thinking out loud. Annoying. "

  "No, it's fine. " And a little strange, she thought, for them to be working together on a stormy afternoon. They worked in silence for a time, though she discovered he was a mutterer with a pencil in his hand. She didn't mind it, and found it surprising that there were still things to learn about him. When she'd finished, she lifted the bouquet out, turned it to study it from every angle. And caught him watching her. "It'll look fuller and softer when the roses open. "

  "You work fast. "

  "This sort isn't especially labor intensive. " She rose, turned to the full-length mirror. "The dress has a lot of detail, very intricate, so this simpler, softer bouquet will suit it. No ribbons, nothing trailing, just the subtle cascade. Held here, waist high, both hands. It's going to . . . "

  Her eyes met his in the mirror, and she caught the faint frown in his. "Don't worry, Jack. I'm not practicing. "


  "I need to put these in the cooler. "

  When she carried them back, placed them, he spoke from the doorway. "I was thinking that the white looked good on you - with you? Whatever it would be. But everything does. And that you never wear flowers. It's probably too cliched for you. So maybe I made a mistake. "

  She stood, surrounded by scent and blossom. "A mistake?"

  "Yeah. I'll be back in a minute. "

  She shook her head when he walked off again. She stepped out, closed the cooler. She'd need to clean off her workstation, then she should go over her notes for the next day.

  "I always try out the bouquets," she said when she heard him come back, "to make sure they're comfortable to hold, that the shape and the use of color and texture work. "

  "Sure. I get it. I pick up a hammer at least once on every job, just to get a feel for the building. I get it, Emma. "

  "Okay then, I just wanted . . . " She trailed off when she turned and saw the long, slim box in his hand.

  "Oh. "

  "I had a meeting in town, and I saw this. It sort of yelled out of the display window, 'Hey, Jack, Emma needs me. ' And I thought, yeah, she does. So . . . "

  "You brought me a present," she said when he handed it to her.

  "You said you liked getting flowers. "

  She opened the box. "Oh, Jack. "

  The bracelet burst with color, bold jewel-toned stones, each a small, perfect rose.

  "But you don't wear flowers. "

  Surprise and delight clear on her face, she looked up. "I will now. It's b
eautiful. Just beautiful. " She took it out, laid it across her wrist. "I'm dazzled. "

  "I know the feeling. Here, the jeweler showed me how it works. The clasp slides in here, so you don't see it. "

  "Thank you. It's . . . Oh, look at my hands. "

  He took them, stained and scratched from her work, and brought them to his lips. "I do. A lot. "

  "I snap at you, and you give me flowers. " She slid into his arms. "I'll have to snap at you more often. " On a sigh, she closed her eyes. "The rain's stopped," she murmured, then leaned back. "I need to clean up a little, then go help with tonight's rehearsal. But after, we could have a drink, maybe something to eat out on the patio. If you want to stay. "

  "I want to stay. " A sudden intensity darkened his eyes as they roamed her face. "Emma. I don't think I've told you enough that I care about you. "

  "I know you do. " She rose up to kiss him softly. "I know. "

  L ATER, WHEN SHE'D LEFT FOR THE MAIN HOUSE, HE ROOTED through her supplies and found what he needed to toss a quick meal together. It wasn't as if he couldn't cook when he needed to, he thought. Or that he expected her to cook for him when they stayed in. As they did more often, he realized.

  He could even put a pretty damn good meal together, the benefit of once dating a sous chef. A little garlic and olive oil, some herbs and chopped tomatoes and they'd have some pasta. No big deal. He'd made her breakfast before, hadn't he?


  Why did he suddenly feel he was taking advantage of her, taking her for granted, the way he'd often thought others did?

  He knew why. He knew exactly why, he admitted as he minced and chopped. The look on her face when their eyes had met in the mirror, just that split second of hurt before irritation had smothered it.

  I'm not practicing.

  He had been thinking of the flowers, the bracelet. But she hadn't been completely wrong in her instincts. On some level he had been . . . uneasy. Or . . . hell if he knew. But the sight of her holding the bouquet had given him a - jolt, he admitted. Just for a second.

  And he'd hurt her, bruised her feelings. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was hurt her. She'd forgiven him, or let it go, or pushed it aside. Not because of the bracelet, he thought. She wasn't the type to angle for gifts, or to sulk over a slight.

  She was . . . Emma.

  Maybe he had taken her for granted here and there. That would stop now that he recognized it. He'd be more careful, that was all. Just because they'd been seeing each other for . . . The shock had him nicking his thumb. Seven weeks. No, nearly eight, which was the same thing as two months. And that was practically an entire season.

  A quarter of a year.

  It had been a very long time since he'd been able to measure the time in months he'd been exclusively with one woman.

  In a couple of weeks they'd have been together throughout spring, and starting into summer. And he was okay with it, he realized. More than okay with it.

  There was no one else he wanted to be with.

  It felt good. Whatever the hell it meant, it felt good to know she'd come back soon and they'd share a meal out on her patio.

  He poured himself a glass of wine as he began to saute garlic. "Here's to the rest of the spring," he said, lifting his glass, "and right through summer. "

  "R ED ALERT!" ATOP THE LADDER, HER HANDS FULL OF DELICATE garlands, Emma craned her neck to read the display on the beeper hooked to her pants. "Crap. Crap. Red alert. Beach, you'll need to finish the garland. Tiff, swags. Tink, ride herd. "

  As she scrambled down, Jack stepped forward to spot her. "Careful. It's not a national emergency. "

  "It is when Parker issues a red. Come with me. Sometimes an extra pair of hands, especially male, can come in handy. If it's just a girl thing, maybe you could come back, help cover chairs. Damn it. I was on schedule. "

  "You'll make it. "

  She moved like lightning, across the terrace, up the steps - that still needed to be dressed - and through the door to the corridor outside the Bride's Suite.

  Straight into hysteria.

  The small mob of people crammed the hall, all in various states of dress. Voices pitched toward the register only dogs could hear. Tears flowed like wine.

  In the midst, Parker stood like a cool island in stormy seas. But Emma recognized the fraying of desperation around the edges.

  "Everyone, everyone! Everything is going to be fine. But you have to calm down, and listen. Please, Mrs. Carstairs, please sit down here. Sit down now, take a breath. "

  "But my baby, my baby. "

  Carter nudged his way forward - a brave soul - and took the weeping woman by the arm. "Here now, have a seat. "

  "Something has to be done. Something has to be done. "

  Emma recognized the mother of the bride. She wasn't crying - yet - but her face approached the color of ripe beets. Even as Emma moved in to take her, or whoever needed it most, off Parker's hands, a shrill whistle cut the air into shocked silence.

  "Okay, everybody, just stop!" Laurel ordered. She wore a white bib apron smeared with what looked to be raspberry sauce.

  Parker plowed into the opening. "Mr. Carstairs, why don't you sit down with your wife a moment?

  Groom, if you and your party would go back to your suite, Carter will give you a hand. Mrs. Princeton, Laurel's going to take you and your husband downstairs. You'll have some tea. Give me fifteen minutes. Jack, could you go with Laurel? We'll bring Mr. and Mrs. Carstairs some tea up here. "

  "Any chance of scotch?" Mr. Princeton asked.

  "Absolutely. Just tell Jack what you'd like. Emma, I could use you in the Bride's Suite. Fifteen minutes, everyone. Just stay calm. "

  "What's the story?" Emma demanded.

  "Quick update. Two of the bridesmaids are severely hung-over, and one was puking heroically in the bathroom moments ago. MOG had a meltdown when she went in to see her son in the Groom's Suite, which annoyed MOB - they don't get along particularly well. Words were exchanged, tempers flared, and continued to flare as the women battled their way to the Bride's Suite. The drama apparently sent the MOH, who's eight months pregnant, into labor. "

  "Oh my God. She's in labor? Now?"

  "It's Braxton Hicks. " Parker's face was a study of sheer determination and unassailable will. "It's going to be Braxton Hicks. Her husband called the doctor, and the MOH convinced him to let us time the contractions for now. Mac and the bride and the rest of the party, not currently puking or moaning, are with her. She and the bride are the only ones keeping their heads. Besides Mac. So. "

  Parker sucked in a breath, opened the door of the Bride's Suite. The MOH lay propped on the little sofa, pale, but apparently calm with the bride - a hairdresser's cape over her corset and garters - kneeling beside her. Across the room, Mac offered a cool compress to a bridesmaid.

  "How are you doing?" Parker asked as she moved briskly toward the pregnant woman. "Do you want your husband?"

  "No. Let him stay with Pete. I'm okay, really. Haven't had anything in the last ten minutes. "

  "Nearly twelve now," the bride told her and held up the stopwatch.

  "Maggie, I'm so sorry. "

  "Stop saying that. " The bride gave her friend a shoulder rub. "Everything's going to be fine. "

  "You should finish getting your hair and your makeup. You should - "

  "It can wait. Everything can just wait. "

  "Actually, it's a good idea," Parker said in a tone that managed to be brisk, businesslike, and cheerful all at once. "If you're not comfortable here, Jeannie, we can move you to my room. It's quieter. "

  "No, I'm fine here, really. And I'd like to watch. I think he's gone back to sleep. " She patted the mound of her belly. "Honestly. Jan's in worse shape than I am. "

  "I'm an idiot. " The attendant with the pale green complexion closed her eyes. "Maggie, just shoot me. "

  "I'm going to have some tea and toast sent up. It
should help. Meanwhile, Emma and Mac are here to help out. I'll be back in two minutes. Any more contractions," Parker said quietly to Emma, "beep me. "

  "Believe it. Come on, Maggie, let's make you gorgeous. " She drew Maggie to her feet, passed her to the hairdresser. With the stopwatch in hand, Emma settled down by the expectant mother. "So, Jeannie, it's a boy?"

  "Yes, our first. I've got another four weeks. I had a checkup Thursday. Everything's fine. We're fine. How's my mother?"

  It took Emma a moment to remember Jeannie was the groom's sister. "She's fine. Excited and emotional, of course, but - "

  "She's a wreck. " Jeannie laughed. "One look at Pete in his tux and she dissolved. We heard the wails in here. "

  "Which, of course, set my mother off," Maggie said from the salon chair. "Then they're at each other like pit bulls. Jan's tossing it in the bathroom and Shannon's curled in a ball. "

  "Better now. " Shannon, a little brunette currently sipping what looked like ginger ale, waved from her own chair.

  "Chrissy's good, so she took the kids outside for just a bit. She should be back by now. "

  Judging things were under control in this area, Emma glanced at Maggie. "Looks like we've cleared the fifteen-minute mark on baby. If Shannon's up to it, she can take over the timer, and I can go find Chrissy and the kids. Bridesmaid, flower girl, ring bearer?"

  "Please. Thanks so much. This is all just crazy. "

  "We've had crazier. " She gave the stopwatch to Shannon, took one more look at Jeannie. The color was back in her cheeks. If anything, she looked serene. "Mac, you've got the fort?"

  "No problem. Hey, let's take some pictures!"

  "You're a cruel woman," Jan muttered.

  Emma dashed out. She spotted the MOG on the terrace, sobbing into a tissue while her husband patted her shoulder and said, "Come on, Edie. For God's sake. "

  She detoured and headed for the main stairs. Parker was already charging back up. "Status?"

  "I think we're down to yellow status. No more contractions, one hangover well on the mend, the other - hard to tell. The bride's in hair, and I'm off to round up the last attendant and the kids. "

  "In the kitchen having cookies and milk. If you could take the FG and RB, send the BA up. Mrs. G's putting tea and toast together. I want to check on the groom, and let the expectant daddy know everything's okay. "

  "On my way. The MOG's on the terrace, wildly weeping. "

  Parker set her jaw. "I'll deal with her. "

  "Good luck. " Emma hurried down, swung toward the kitchen just as Jack came in from the direction of the Grand Hall.

  "Please tell me there's not a woman delivering a baby upstairs. "

  "That crisis, it seems, has passed. "

  "Well, thank you, Jesus. "



  "Parents of Bride?"

  "Carter's got them. It seems he teaches a nephew. And the mom's repairing her makeup or something. "

  "Good. I've got to get the last BA, send her up and take over with the FG and RB. "

  His brow furrowed, then he gave up on the code. "Whatever you say. "

  Pausing, Emma considered him. "You're pretty good with kids, as I recall. "

  "I'm okay. They're just short. "

  "If you can take the RB - the boy, he's five - and entertain him for about fifteen minutes, it would help. You can deliver him to the Groom's Suite as soon as we get the all clear. I'll take the girl up, help get her dressed. " She glanced at her beeper with some trepidation when it signaled. Then blew out a breath.

  "Yellow and holding. Good. "

  "Don't these kids have parents?" he asked as he followed her toward the kitchen.

  "Yes, and both are in the wedding party. They're brother and sister, twins. The BA with them is Mom. The dad's a groomsman, so you can take the RB up in ten or fifteen. Just give everything a few more minutes to smooth out. Once I get the FG settled, I need to get back out and finish dressing the outside areas. So - "

  She broke off, fixed a big, happy smile on her face before she pushed into the kitchen. In an hour, the bride and attendants were beautified, the groom and his men polished. While Mac organized the separate parties for formal photos, and Parker kept the respective mothers at a distance, Emma finished the outside decor.

  "Want a job?" she asked Jack as he helped cover the last row of chairs.

  "So absolutely not. I don't know how you do this every weekend. "

  She attached cones holding the palest of pink peonies to selected chairs. "It's never boring. Tink, I've got to run home and change. Guests are arriving. "

  "We're good here. "

  "Parker estimates we'll only be about ten minutes late, which is a miracle. There's food for all of you in the kitchen when we're done. I'm back in fifteen. Jack, go have a drink. "

  "I plan to. "

  She was back in twelve, having traded her work clothes for a quiet black suit. She pinned boutonnieres while Parker's voice sounded in her headset. "We're a go in the Bride's Suite. Cuing music. Ushers to start escort. "

  She listened to the countdown as she brushed lapels, joked with the groom. She spotted Parker arranging the parents, and Mac getting into position for shots. She took a moment, just one, to admire the view outside. The crisp white covers on the chairs served as a perfect backdrop for the flowers. All the greens and pinks, from the palest to the deepest, blooming against the shimmer of tulle and lace.

  Then the moment was over as the groom took his place, and the mothers - one teary, the other maybe just a little tipsy on scotch - were escorted to their seats.

  She turned to gather the bouquets and pass them out as Parker lined up the ladies.

  "You all look so beautiful. Still holding, Jeannie?"

  "He's awake, but behaving. "

  "Maggie, you're just stunning. "

  "Oh, don't. " The bride waved a hand in front of her face. "I didn't think I'd get all choked up, but I'm right on the edge. I'm about to give my new mother-in-law a run for her money. "

  "One breath in, one breath out," Parker ordered. "Slow and easy. "

  "Okay. Okay. Parker, if I ever need to wage war, you're my general. Emma, the flowers are . . . Breathe in, breathe out. Daddy. "

  "Don't you start. " He gave her hand a squeeze. "Do you want me to walk you down while I'm blubbering like a baby?"

  "Here now. " Parker reached under the veil, gently dabbed at Maggie's eyes. "Head up, and smile. Okay, number one, you're on. "

  "See you on the other side, Mags. " Jan, still a bit pale but beaming, started her walk.

  "And two . . . Go. "

  With her job done for the moment, Emma stepped back while Parker ran the show.

  "Have to admit," Jack said from beside her, "I didn't think you were going to pull this one off. Not this smooth. I'm not only impressed, I'm very nearly awestruck. "

  "We've had a lot worse than this. "

  "Uh-oh," he said when her eyes filled.

  "I know. Sometimes they just hit me. I think it was the way the bride handled herself - crisis by crisis - then started to crumble at her big moment. But she's holding on. Just look at that smile. And look at him look at her. " She sighed. "Sometimes they just hit me," she repeated.

  "I think you've earned this. " Jack held out a glass of wine.

  "Oh boy, have I. Thanks. "

  She hooked her arm through his, tipped her head toward his shoulder. And watched the wedding.

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