Bed of roses, p.9

Bed of Roses, page 9

 part  #2 of  Bride Quartet Series


Bed of Roses

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  AT SIX, EMMA WALKED INTO THE KITCHEN FROM THE MUDROOM as Parker walked in from the hall.

  "Good timing. Hi, Mrs. G. "

  "Grilled chicken Caesars," Mrs. Grady announced. "Use the breakfast nook. I'm not setting up the dining room when you girls are going to be coming in and out and picking. "

  "Yes, ma'am. I worked through lunch. I'm starved. "

  "Have a glass of wine with it. " Mrs. Grady jerked her head toward Parker. "This one's in a mood. "

  "I'm not in any particular mood. " But Parker took one of the glasses of wine Mrs. Grady poured. "Your bill. "

  Emma glanced at the bottom line, winced. "Ouch. I guess I deserve it. "

  "Maybe so. But I didn't deserve the angry lecture from the proprietor who assumed I was you. "

  "Uh-oh. What hospital is he in? I should send flowers. "

  "He survived, unscathed. Partially because I was on a schedule and didn't have time to hurt him. Your car was also detailed, expertly, inside and out - gratis to first-time customers. Which counted in his favor. Marginally. "

  Pausing, Parker took another sip of wine. "Mrs. G, you know everyone. "

  "Whether I want to or not. Sit. Eat. " When they had, Mrs. Grady plopped down on one of the counter stools with her own glass of wine. "You want to know about young Malcolm Kavanaugh. Bit of a wild one. Army brat. His father died overseas when he was a boy. Ten or twelve, I think, which may account for the bit of wild. His ma had a hard time keeping him in line. She used to waitress at Artie's, the place on the avenue. He'd be her brother, Artie would, and why she moved here when she lost her husband. "

  Mrs. Grady took a sip of wine, and settled back a bit to tell the rest. "As you may know, Artie Frank is a complete asshole, and his wife is a prissy snob of a woman. What I heard was Artie decided to take the boy in hand, and the boy did his level best to snap that hand off at the wrist. And good for him," she added with some relish. "He went off, the boy did, to race cars or motorcycles or something like. Did some stunt work in the movies, I believe. Did well enough for himself, from what I'm told. And made sure his ma got a piece of the pie he was making. "

  "Well. That speaks well of him, I suppose," Parker allowed.

  "Got busted up on a stunt, and got some kind of settlement out of it. He used it to buy the garage out on Route One, about three years ago. Bought his ma a little house as well. He's built up a nice business, from what I'm told, and still has a bit of the wild in him. "

  "I'll assume he's built up his business through his skill with engines and not through his skill with customer relations. "

  "Put your back up," Emma commented.

  "I'll get over it, as long as he does the job well. " Parker glanced over as Laurel came in. "Cutting it close. "

  "Coffee and cookies are set up. Some of us don't have time to sit around eating and gossiping before a consult. " Laurel frowned as she combed her fingers through her hair. "Plus you're having wine. "

  "Parker was in a mood because - "

  "I heard all about that already. " Laurel poured herself a scant half glass. "I want new juice. What's the current situation with Jack?"

  "I think we're having virtual sex. We're still in the early stages of foreplay, so I'm not sure where it's going. "

  "I've never had cyber sex. I've never liked anyone enough to have cyber sex. " Laurel cocked her head as she considered. "And that sounds odd. I like a guy well enough to have actual sex, but not virtual?"

  "Because it's a game. " Emma got up to give Laurel the remaining half of her salad. "You might like a man enough to go to bed with him, but you might not want to play with him. "

  "That makes weird sense. " With a nod, Laurel stabbed at the salad. "You always make weird sense when it comes to men. "

  "And obviously she likes Jack enough to play with him," Parker added.

  "Jack's got a sense of fun, which is one of the things I've always liked about him. And found attractive. "

  Emma's lips curved in a slow, easy smile. "We'll see how much we like playing games. "

  IN THE PARLOR, OVER COFFEE AND LAUREL'S MACAROONS, PARKER led the consult with the engaged couple and their mothers. "As I explained to Mandy and Seth, Vows will tailor our services to suit your needs. As much or as little as you want. Our goal, together and individually, is to give you the perfect wedding. Your perfect wedding. Now, when we spoke last, you hadn't chosen a date, but had decided you wanted evening and outdoors. "

  Emma listened with half an ear as dates were discussed.

  She wondered if Jack had gotten her e-mail yet.

  The bride wanted romance. Didn't they all? Emma thought, but perked up when she said she'd be wearing her grandmother's wedding gown.

  "I have a photo," Mandy announced, "but Seth isn't allowed to see. So . . . "

  "Seth, would you like a beer?"

  He looked over at Laurel, grinned. "I would. "

  "Why don't you come with me? I'll set you up. When you've finished the beer we should be ready for you again. "

  "Thanks. " Mandy reached into a large folder when Laurel led Seth out. "I know it's probably silly - "

  "Not at all. " Parker held out a hand for the photo, and her polite expression turned radiant. "Oh. Oh, it's gorgeous. It's just stunning. Late thirties, early forties?"

  "You're good," the mother of the bride said. "My parents were married in 1941. She was just eighteen. "

  "Ever since I was a little girl I've talked about wearing Nana's wedding gown when I got married. It needs to be fitted, and a little repair, but Nana's taken good care of it. "

  "Do you have a seamstress in mind?"

  "We've spoken to Esther Brightman. "

  As she studied the photo, Parker nodded approval. "She's a genius, and exactly who I'd recommend for this. Mandy, you're going to look absolutely amazing. And we could, if you want, build the entire wedding around this dress. Vintage glamour with class, romance with style. Tails rather than the more expected tux for the groom and groomsmen. "

  "Oh, wow. Wow. Would he go for that?" she asked her future mother-in-law.

  "He'll go for anything you want, honey. Personally, I love the idea. We'd want to find vintage dresses, or the vintage style for the bridal party. "

  Emma studied the photo when it came to her. Fluid, she thought, Deco-inspired lines, with a sheen that said silk. She lifted her gaze to study Mandy, and decided the new bride would wear the gown as beautifully as her grandmother had. "I can replicate the bouquet," she said half to herself.

  "What?" Mandy cut herself off in midsentence and swung her attention to Emma.

  "The bouquet - if you wanted - I can replicate it. Look how clever she was, how smart to offset the long, fluid lines of the gown with the oversized crescent of calla lilies. Do you have the veil and headpiece?"

  "Yes. "

  "From what I can see, she had it trimmed with lily-of-the-valley. I can do that, if it appeals to you. I just wanted to mention that before Seth comes back. Something you can think about. "

  "I love it! Mom?"

  "My mother will be a puddle. So will I. I love it, too. "

  "We'll talk about it in more detail when we do our individual consult. Meanwhile, when you select the dresses for the bridesmaids, if you can get pictures then I can get copies made or you can scan them and send them in an e-mail so I can see what kind of flowers she chose for them. "

  Emma handed the photo back to Mandy. "You'd better put that away. "

  "Mac, why don't you give Mandy an overview of the photography?"

  "First, I want to duplicate the pose in your grandmother's formal portrait. It's classic and gorgeous. But tonight, we should talk about what you'd like for your engagement portraits. "

  They moved from stage to stage, step to step, with a rhythm they'd developed over the years. As they discussed photography, cakes, food, Emma jotted down key words that would help her create a picture of the bride, the groom,
and what they envisioned.

  And if her thoughts veered in Jack's direction a few times, she reminded herself she excelled at multitasking.

  By the time she and her partners walked the clients to the door, she was ready to duck out and see if Jack had answered her e-mail.

  "Good job," she said. "I'm going to go home and start a file for the event. So - "

  "There's something else," Parker interrupted. "When I was at the boutique today, I found Mac's dress. "

  "You what?" Mac blinked at her. "My dress?"

  "I know you, and what you're looking for. And since it was right there, saying I'm Mac's, I used our connections and brought it home for approval. Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought at least you'd want to try it on. "

  "You brought home a wedding dress for me to try on?" Eyes narrowed, Mac pointed at Parker. "Aren't you the one who's always telling brides they might try on a hundred dresses before they find the one?"

  "Yes. You're not most brides. You know immediately what works and what doesn't. If it doesn't, no harm done. Why don't we go take a look? It's up in the Bride's Suite. "

  "Oh, we have to see. " Thrilled with the idea, Emma grabbed Mac's hand and tugged. "Wait, we need champagne. Which Parker would have thought of already. "

  "Mrs. G will have it up there by now. "

  "Champagne and a potential wedding dress?" Mac mused. "What are we waiting for? No hurt feelings if I don't like it," she added as they started up the stairs.

  "Absolutely not. If you don't it would only tell me how vastly superior my taste is to yours. " With the faintest of smirks, Parker opened the door to the Bride's Suite where Mrs. Grady poured flutes of champagne.

  "Heard you coming. " And she winked at Parker as Mac simply stared at the gown hanging from the hook.

  "It's beautiful," Mac murmured. "It's . . . "

  "Strapless, which I think will suit you," Parker continued. "And the slight A-line will flatter your build. I know you were leaning toward something completely unadorned, but I think you're wrong. The tissue organza over the silk adds romance, softens the lines. You're angular. And the back?"

  Parker lifted it off the hook, turned it around.

  "I love it!" Emma pushed forward. "The ruffle train, out of the organza! It's fabulous, just a little flirty. Plus the way it should drape over your butt - "

  "Will actually give you one," Laurel finished. "Try it on, or I will. "

  "Give me a second, this is a moment. Okay, there's the moment. " And Mac unhooked her pants. As she stripped down, Emma circled a finger.

  "Turn your back to the mirror. You don't want to see yourself putting it on. You want the pow effect once you're in it. "

  "Dropping your clothes where you stand. " Mrs. Grady shook her head as she scooped them up. "Just as you always have. Well, help her into it," she ordered, and stood back, smiled.

  "Oh. I'm going to cry. " Emma sniffled while Parker fastened the gown in place.

  "They didn't have your size, so it's a little big. "

  "That's what I'm here for. " Mrs. Grady picked up her pin cushion. "We'll nip and tuck a bit here and there so it shows better on you. It's a shame you've always been such an ugly thing. "

  "Insult me, but don't stick me. "

  "That'll do for now. " Mrs. Grady stepped around to fuss a little with the bodice, then reached up to smooth Mac's bright red hair. "We have to work with what we've got. "

  "Count to three, Mac, then turn and look. " Emma pressed both hands to her lips. "Just look at you. "

  "Okay. " Mac took in a breath, let it out, then turned toward the cheval glass where she'd watched so many brides study their reflections. The only thing she could say was "Oh!"

  "And that says it all. " Laurel blinked at tears. "It's . . . it. You're it in it. "

  "It's . . . I'm . . . Holy shit, I'm a bride. " Mac's fingers fluttered up to her heart as she angled herself.

  "Oh, check out the back. It's fun, and female, and I do have an ass. " In the glass, her gaze shifted to Parker's. "Parks. "

  "Am I good or am I good?"

  "You're the best. This is my wedding dress. Aw, Mrs. G. "

  Mrs. Grady dabbed her eyes. "I'm just shedding a tear of joy that I won't have four spinsters on my hands. "

  "Flowers in your hair. A wide floral headband instead of a veil," Emma suggested.

  "Really?" Pursing her lips, Mac studied herself, imagined. "That could work. That could work well. "

  "I'll show you some ideas. And you know, I think with the lines of the dress, I'd like to see a long sweep of a bouquet, probably hand tied. Maybe arm-carried. " Emma angled one arm, swept her hand down to demonstrate. "Or a cascade, but with a waterfall effect. Rich, warm autumn colors, and . . . I'm getting ahead of myself. "

  "No. God, we're planning my wedding. I think I need that drink. "

  Retrieving Mac's flute, Laurel stepped to her. "It sure looks better on you than any of our old Wedding Day costumes. "

  "Plus, it doesn't itch. "

  "I'm going to make you one hell of a cake. "

  "Oh man, I'm watering up again. "

  "Turn around, all of you," Mrs. Grady ordered as she took a camera out of her pocket. "Our redhead's not the only one who can take a picture. Glasses up. There's my girls," she murmured, and captured the moment.

  W HILE THE LADIES DRANK CHAMPAGNE AND DISCUSSED WEDDING flowers, Jack popped a beer and prepared to fleece friends at Texas Hold 'Em. And tried not to think about Emma and her latest e-mail.

  "Since it's Carter's first official Poker Night, let's try not to humiliate him. " Del clapped a friendly hand on Carter's shoulder. "Taking his money's one thing, embarrassing him's another. "

  "I'll be gentle," Jack promised.

  "I could just watch. "

  "Now where's the fun and profit in that. For us?" Del asked.

  "Ha," Carter managed.

  They mingled around Del's lower level. A boy's dream space, in Jack's opinion, with its antique bar that had once served pints in Galway, its slate pool table, its flat-screen TV - an auxiliary to the even bigger one in the media room on the other side of the house. It boasted a vintage jukebox, video games, and two classic pinball machines. Leather chairs, sofas that could take a beating. And a Vegas-style poker table just waiting for action.

  No wonder he and Del were friends.

  "If you were a girl," Jack said to Del, "I'd marry you. "

  "No. You'd just have sex with me then never call me. "

  "You're probably right. "

  Since it was there, Jack snagged a slice of pizza. Skinning friends was hungry work. As he ate he considered the group. Two lawyers, the professor, the architect, the surgeon, the landscape designer - and as he watched the last player come through the door - the mechanic. Interesting group, he thought. It fluctuated from time to time with a new addition, like Carter, or when one of them couldn't make it. The tradition of Poker Night had begun when he and Del had met in college. The faces might change off and on, but the foundation remained. Eat, drink, tell lies, talk sports. And try to win money from your friends.

  "We're all here. Want a beer, Mal?" Del asked.

  "I'm breathing. How's it going?" Mal said to Jack.

  "Well enough. The new blood's Carter Maguire. Carter, Malcolm Kavanaugh. "

  Mal nodded. "Hey. "

  "Nice to meet you. Kavanaugh? The mechanic?"

  "Guilty. "

  "You towed my future mother-in-law's car. "

  "Yeah? Did she want me to?"

  "No. Linda Barrington. "

  Mal narrowed his eyes. "Okay. Yeah. The BMW convertible. The 128i. "

  "Um. I guess. "

  "Nice ride. Interesting woman. " Mal smirked as he lifted his beer again. "Good luck with that. "

  "The daughter doesn't take after the mother," Del put in.

  "Lucky for you," Mal said to Carter. "I met her - the daughter. Mackensie, right? She's
hot. She does the bride thing with the Cobalt I just serviced. "

  "Emma," Del added.

  "Right. She ought to be arrested for vehicular abuse. I met your sister when she picked it up," he told Del, and grinned. "She's hot, too. Even when she gives you the deep freeze. "

  "So . . . Emma didn't pick up her car?"

  Mal glanced at Jack. "No, the other one did. Ms. Brown . " He took a hit of his beer. "The one who says

  'excuse me' and means 'fuck you. ' "

  "That would be Parker," Del confirmed.

  "Does the car abuser look as good as the other two?"

  "They all look good," Jack murmured.

  "Sorry I missed her. "

  "Before I have to punch Mal for thinking lascivious thoughts about my sisters - biological and honorary,"

  Del said, "let's play cards. "

  "Be right there. " As the others wandered to the table, Jack pulled out his phone to check his e-mails. I T WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT WHEN EMMA GOT HOME. ONCE they'd started talking plans and ideas for Mac's wedding, time whizzed.

  She all but bounced into the house, energized by the evening, and just a little giddy on champagne. Mac's wedding.

  She could already see how utterly perfect the bride would be in her gorgeous gown, a waterfall of flowers in her arms. And she, Parker, and Laurel, triple maids of honor. Russet for her, autumn gold for Parker, pumpkin for Laurel. And oh, the flowers she'd do with that rich palette of fall. It would be a challenge, Emma thought as she started upstairs. Parker had been right to point that out so they could begin to plan how it could and would be done. Running a wedding was one thing. Running it and being part of it was another.

  They'd need extra help, more subs, but they'd not only do it, they'd knock it out of the park. Cruising on the mood, she began her nightly ritual. When her bed was turned down, she nodded, smoothed the sheets. There, she'd shown a very mature restraint. An evening with friends - business and pleasure - and no neglecting of her nighttime routine.

  It proved she was a sensible adult.

  Crossing the fingers of both hands, she dashed from her bedroom to her office to bring up her e-mail.

  "There, I knew it. "

  She clicked open Jack's latest message.

  Now you're playing dirty. Thanks.

  I like surprises. I especially like unwrapping them, so I look forward to helping you out of your coat. I like to take my time with surprises, build anticipation. So I'm going to unwrap you very slowly. Inch by inch.

  "Oh," she said, "my. "

  And when I have, I'm going to want to take a good, long look. Before I touch. Inch by inch. When, Emma?

  "How about right now?"

  She closed her eyes and imagined Jack slipping her out of the slick black coat she didn't even own. In a room shimmering with candlelight. Music playing, low and hot - so you felt the bass beat in the blood. His eyes, dangerous as hellsmoke, gliding over her until heat drenched her skin. Then his hands, strong, sure, slow, following that path of heat, easing the velvet on her elbows down until . . .

  "That's just silly. " She straightened in her chair.

  Silly, maybe, she thought, but she'd managed to stir herself up. Or he had. Time to respond in kind.

  I like to play, and I don't mind getting dirty.

  Surprises are fun, and being the surprise can be even better. When I am, sometimes I like being unwrapped slowly. Fingertips patiently untying the bow, then hands carefully, very carefully, folding back that wrapping to get to what's waiting inside. And other times I want those fingers, those hands, to just rip through the barriers. Fast and greedy, and maybe a little rough.

  Soon, Jack.

  Not if any longer, she thought.

  Just when.

  W ITH HER THREE TOPIARIES FINISHED AND TINK DEEP INTO processing another delivery, Emma took a quick look at her notes and sketches.

  "Six hand-tied bouquets including the bride's tossing bouquet for Friday's event. Six pedestal arrangements, eighteen centerpieces, white rose ball, garlands, and swags for the pergola. " She muttered her way down the list. "I'll need you at least three hours tomorrow. Four would be better. "

  "I've got a date tonight, and I'm looking to get lucky. " Fingers busy, Tink snapped her gum. "I could be here around noon. "

  "If you can stick till four, that ought to do it. Another four on Thursday. Five if you want it. I've got Tiffany coming in Thursday, and Beach can give me all day Friday. I can use whatever time you can give me Friday morning. We can start dressing for Friday's event at three. Saturday's another twofer. We need to start by eight for the first. That's A. M. , Tink. "

  Tink rolled her eyes, and kept stripping thorns.

  "We break down the first at three thirty, and need the second fully dressed by five thirty. Sunday, we have a big one, a single starting at four. So we'll need to start at ten or ten thirty. "

  "I'll try to squeeze what there is of my life in there," Tink said dolefully.

  "You'll manage. I'll take what you've processed back to the cooler and get the stock we need for the arrangements. " As she picked up the first container and turned, Jack walked in.

  "Oh . . . Hi. "

  "Hi back. How's it going, Tink?"

  "Emma drives the slaves. "

  "Yes, she is abused constantly," Emma said. "You can there-there her while I haul these back to the cooler. "

  God, she thought, he looked so good in his fieldwork clothes, the boots, the faded jeans, the shirt rolled up to the elbows.

  She wished she could take just one quick bite.

  "Why don't I give you a hand?" He hefted another tub and started back to the cooler.

  "We're a little crazy this week," Emma told him. "A midweek off site, and four events over the weekend. Sunday's wedding is a monster - in a good way. " She set her tub down, gestured where Jack should place his. "Now I need to - "

  He spun her around, boosted her up to her toes in one fast move. Her arms locked around his neck in a combination of instinct and answer even as his mouth laid claim to hers. The wild, rich perfume of flowers saturated the air just as need and pleasure saturated her body. Greed and urgency swam through her blood.

  Not just one bite, she thought, and not quick. She wanted gulp after gulp.

  "Does that door lock from the inside?"

  She tunneled her fingers through his hair to bring his mouth back to hers. "What door?"

  "Emma, you're killing me. Let me just - "

  "Oh, that door. No. Wait. Damn it. Just one more. " She caught his face in her hands this time, let herself simply sink into the kiss, the perfume, the greed. Then eased back.

  "We can't. Tink. And . . . " Regretfully, she blew out a breath as she glanced around. "There really isn't room in here. "

  "When is she leaving? I'll come back. "

  "I don't know, exactly, but . . . Wait. "

  Now he took her face, met her eyes. "Why?"

  "I . . . I can't think of a good reason, but that may be because I lost many thousands of brain cells during that kiss. I can't remember if I have any evening appointments. My mind's wiped clean. "

  "I'm coming back at seven. I'll bring food. Unless you call me and say otherwise. Seven, here. "

  "Okay. All right. I'll check my book when I regain the power of cogent thought. But - "

  "Seven," he repeated and kissed her again. "If we need to talk, we'll talk. "

  "It may have to be in short, declarative sentences and words of one or two syllables. "

  "We can do that. " His grin shot fresh heat straight to her belly. "Do you need anything out of here?"

  "Yes, but I can't remember what. Give me a second. " She pushed her hands through her hair, closed her eyes. "All right, yeah. Those, those. Then you've really got to go away. I can't work if I'm thinking about you, this. Sex. Any of it. "

  "Tell me about it. Seven," he repeated, and helped her carry out the flowers. <
br />
  "I'll, uh, get back to you on that," she told him when he set the flowers in her work area. "When I'm not so . . . busy. "

  "Great. " The warm gray eyes lingered on her just a moment longer. "See you, Tink. "

  "You bet. " Tink clipped another few stems while Jack left, then slid them into their holding tub. "So, when did you and Jack start doing it?"

  "Doing what? Oh. Tink. " Shaking her head, Emma turned to her shelves to select the proper container for the fireplace arrangement she had planned. "We're not. "

  "If you tell me he didn't plant a big yummy one on you back there, I'm going to call you a liar. "

  "I don't understand why you . . . " Stupid, Emma told herself, then reached for her flower foam. "How do you know?"

  "Because your eyes were still glazed when you came back, and he looked like a guy who'd only gotten a few nibbles when he's ready for a great big bite. "

  "Bite. Ha-ha. "

  "Why aren't you doing it? He's prime. "

  "I'm - we're . . . You know, sex doesn't fluster me. I mean talking about sex, because if actually having sex doesn't fluster you at least a little, you're missing something. But this flusters me. "

  As she continued to work, Tink nodded sagely. "Moving from friends to friends with benefits has the advantage of knowing who the hell you're getting naked with. "

  "There's that. But it could be awkward, right? After. "

  "Only if one of you's an asshole about it. " She gave her gum another cheerful snap. "So, my advice - don't be an asshole. "

  "On some odd level that's actually wise. " Emma set the foam to soak. "I need to check something in my appointment book. "

  "Okay. I'd schedule that nookie in for tonight," Tink called after her. "You'll be the happy flower lady tomorrow. "

  And there's another point, Emma thought.

  She saw by her book she'd left the evening open. She'd marked the date with a large X after five o'clock, her way of warning herself not to get talked into going out. Too much work lined up for a date. But this wasn't actually a date, she decided. He'd come by, bring food, and then . . . they'd see. She didn't have to change or think about what she should wear or . . . Who was she kidding? Of course she'd worry about what to wear. There was no way whatever was going to happen with Jack was going to happen while she was wearing her work clothes and her nails were green from stems and foliage.

  Plus, she'd need fresh flowers and candles in the bedroom. And she'd be more relaxed if she could take a nice bubble bath. Choosing an outfit was a vital element in an evening like this, not just what went on top, but what was under it.

  She closed the book.

  When she thought it all through, a not-actual date required more work than an actual one. She hurried back to her flowers. She had to finish her workday, give the client her best. Then she needed plenty of time before seven to make everything perfect, without making it obvious she'd gone to any trouble at all.

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