In spite of the thousands of winking lights surrounding Trish James, a wedding somehow lost its luster in the wake of death. She nudged her shucked shoes out of the way with her big toe and adjusted the tulle on the wedding arch, the soft netlike fabric billowing beneath her fingertips as she encased the twinkle lights. The church sanctuary, with its white pews, stained-glass windows, and smoky blue carpet, served as the perfect backdrop to her design.
“This wedding must be hard on you after Doc’s death.” Dani spoke the words as if uncertain she should speak at all.
The ache in Trish’s heart started afresh, a wound that never healed, but she pushed it aside with practiced expertise. This wedding wasn’t about her. “I’m fine. It’s not every day my brother marries the most wonderful woman in the world.” She forced a bright smile. “I’ve never seen Steve so happy.” Mom would’ve loved this wedding.
Her sister-in-law-to-be didn’t return the smile. Instead, the area above her clear blue eyes creased. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yep.” Trish snipped the word and bent low to snag a sprig of silk ivy, then inserted it in the proper place and blinked away tears. In truth, it would be great to have someone to share her concerns with, but within boundaries—not right before the wedding, not with anyone who lived in Miller’s Creek, and
definitely not with family members. The last thing she wanted was for them to come to her rescue.
She’d told Delaine some of the situation, but her best friend since high school now lived the fast-paced, Austin lifestyle, their conversations limited to when Delaine didn’t have something else on her agenda.
“I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be both mother and father to Little Bo.” Dani lowered her head, blonde ringlets framing her face. “And then trying to start a business on top of everything else.”
Oh, no. She wasn’t going there. Trish clenched her teeth. Steve had already given her this lecture. With his best brotherly concern, he’d told her she didn’t have to be Superwoman. Yeah, right. Try telling that to her empty checkbook and refrigerator. She glanced at Dani, who sat atop the piano railing, swinging her legs. “Are you ready for the big day tomorrow?”
A happy glow wreathed her friend’s face. “And the day after, and the day after that. I think I’ve been getting ready to marry Steve my entire life.”
“I’m happy for you both.” Though it hurt to speak the words, she meant it. It wasn’t their fault her life was in the doldrums.
Dani sprang from her perch and trotted down the steps to view the stage. “You have such a gift, Trish. Everything looks magical.”
Trish gazed at the curly willow branches she’d ordered and spray-painted white, now wrapped with tiny sparks of light. The fairy tale forest blanketed the stage and meandered down the side aisles in an aura of enchantment. Once the ribbons and flowers were placed, and candles inserted into globes and nestled among the boughs, her vision would be complete. “I hope it’s what you wanted.”
“It’s better than I could’ve ever imagined.” Dani hurried over and draped an arm across her shoulder. “Once everyone in Miller’s Creek see this, you’re gonna get loads of business.”
A heavy sigh whooshed from her before she could contain it. “From your lips to my bank account.”
Dani’s eyes clouded. “I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just going to say it and get it over with. Are you okay? I mean . . . do you need to borrow money or something?”
No. Yes. Yes. She wasn’t okay. She needed money. She needed . . . something. “I’m fine.” The lie popped out as she stepped to the box perched on the piano bench. With care she lifted two delicate cracked-glass globes and moved to the candle stands. The words “I’m fine” were her constant mantra these days, like saying them made everything all right. Who was she kidding?
She closed her eyes and reopened them with a slow blink, weary of pretending. But what choice did she have? Her brother’s wedding wasn’t the time or place to air her personal problems. Besides, she was thirty-two years old, more than old enough to handle life on her own. A glance at her wristwatch sent her pulse on a stampede. Still so much to do to make the decorations perfect. God, please let this bring me business.
Dani plopped back onto the railing. “Is Little Bo doing better?”
How could he be? “Sure, if you don’t count the nightmares and barely letting me out of his sight.” She omitted the fact that he was a hairsbreadth away from flunking kindergarten, unless she could help him catch up before the school year ended.
“So the psychologist is helping?”
Before Trish could respond, the double white doors at the rear of the church burst open. Incessant rain poured from the April sky and silhouetted a person’s form. Dani let out a squeal. “Andy!”
The petite blonde flew down the steps toward her friend.
Trish vaguely remembered the man from the time he’d spent in Miller’s Creek during the downtown renovation, though she didn’t recall ever having met him. Today he wore a lightweight suit with a loosened necktie, and had an easy-going smile that brightened the room. “Hey, girl. How’s the bride?”
Dani looked up at him, her face radiant. “Never better.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
She tugged his arm. “Come here. I want you to meet someone.”
His loose-limbed gait gave the impression of someone always relaxed, like he’d just returned from a vacation at the beach.
“This is Andy Tyler, my friend and attorney from Dallas. Andy, this is Steve’s sister.”
Sea-green eyes sparkled. “Well, does Steve’s sister have a name?” He jogged up the steps and held out a hand, his smile still bright.
Trish laughed and took his hand. “I’m Trish James. Nice to meet you.”
Dani’s face took on a crimson hue. “Sorry. Guess my mind is elsewhere.”
Andy’s gaze rested on Trish’s bare feet. “Glad to know you have a name. What about shoes?”
She couldn’t help but smile. “I got rid of them hours ago.”
The hall door squeaked behind them, and Mama Beth, the mother figure of all of Miller’s Creek and Dani’s biological mother, bustled into the room. Along with her came the smell of fresh-baked bread wafting from the fellowship hall. Trish could almost taste the melt-in-your-mouth rolls. Maybe she could sneak a few leftovers for her and Bo to nibble on next week.
The older woman gazed around the room. “My goodness, Trish, if this isn’t the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.” Mama Beth hugged Andy’s neck. “Hi, Andy.”
A tender gleam lit his eyes as he wrapped his arms around the older woman’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. “Hi, sweet lady.” He turned raised eyebrows to Trish. “You did all this?”
She ducked her head and pushed a silky strand of hair behind one ear.
“All of it,” gushed Dani, “and wait until you see the fellowship hall.”
“Speaking of fellowship hall, I could sure use your help in the kitchen.” Mama Beth’s voice took on a commanding tone as she scuttled to the door. “We’ve got enough work to do for this rehearsal dinner to keep an entire army busy.”
Dani looked torn. “But I can’t leave Trish down here to do all this by herself.”
Trish wrestled the wieldy greenery in place, longing to comment that she didn’t need help. It would suit her just fine if they’d all go away and leave her alone.
Andy rested his hands on his hips in mock protest, his tan jacket pulled back. “What am I? Pork belly? I’ll help Trish. You go help Mama Beth.” He held up a hand. “Trust me when I say I’ll be more help here than in the kitchen.”
“Good point. I’ve had your cooking.” Dani grinned and rushed after Mama Beth. “Y’all know where to find us if you need help.”
Andy chuckled and shed his jacket, then laid it across the front pew and turned her way. “What can I do to help?”
Trish mentally checked her to-do list. “I was actually waiting for someone with more muscles than me to come around. There’s a box full of candles I need brought in from my Suburban.” She pointed toward the side door. “It’s out there and it’s unlocked.”
He gave a mock salute that bounced his sandy curls. “Yes ma’am.” Andy’s stocky frame loped down the steps and disappeared through the doorway.
Her eyebrows rose as she made her way to the pile of greenery on the front pew. Dani’s friend was more handsome than she’d remembered. Trish burrowed through the tangled mess, remembering the promise she’d made Dani to help Andy feel welcome. As if she needed a man to take care of along with her other responsibilities.
The door slammed, Andy’s eyes and forehead barely visible above the box he white-knuckled. She ran to him. “Let me help. I know that’s heavy. I loaded it this morning.”
“Nah, I got it.” The words wheezed out. “You loaded this by yourself?”
She ignored the question and pointed to the stage. “Can you bring it up the steps?”
He shot her a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding glare then labored up the steps, his face red, his breath coming in agonized spurts. As he reached the last step, the toe of his leather lace-ups snagged the extension cord snaking along the edge of the stage.
Trish tried to speak, but the words congregated behind her locked lips.
Andy stumbled, and the box flew from his arms, the candles launching like small missiles. He hit the floor with a thud, the box crash-landing at the base of the first tree.
In slow motion, like carefully-placed dominos, the trees rippled to the floor in a sickening staccato of crashes and breaking glass. As if to punctuate the effect, the white metal archway in the center creaked and leaned, as it teetered, then toppled forward with a bang.
Her mouth hinged open, and her hands flew to her cheeks. All her hard work . . . ruined. In her shock, it took a moment to realize Andy still lay face down on the carpet. She hurried over to him. “Are you all right?”
He pushed himself up on all fours and surveyed the devastation.
Assured he was okay, she moved to the top step and slung herself down. The scene replayed in her mind. A giggle gurgled out, and then burst forth in an almost-maniacal laugh.
Andy chuckled and crawled to sit beside her.
Without warning, her laughter turned to sobs. She covered her face with trembling hands, rage surging at yet another unexpected crying jag. Now she’d never be ready on time. No one would be impressed. No one would want her services. No business. No money.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Andy slid a hand down her arm. “I’ll fix it, Trish, I promise. I’m so sorry.”
Trish fisted her hands, then straightened her spine and swatted at the tears on her cheeks. “Will you please stop apologizing?” There was no controlling her snappish tone. “For Pete’s sake, it was an accident. I’m not gonna sue.” She clamped her lips, rose to her feet, and waded through the ruins. Fingers against her lips, she knelt to retrieve shattered slivers of glass from the broken globes. These weren’t even paid for.
Andy stooped beside her, his eyes boring a hole into her skull. “Here, let me get that. You start putting things back where you want them.”
Trish could only nod at his softly-spoken words, a knot wedged in her windpipe. She lifted a tree into position, the light strands dripping from the branches like a child had thrown them in place. So far her determination to prove herself capable had been met with nothing but industrial-strength resistance.
It’s all your fault. The familiar words in Andy’s head relentlessly accused, ushering forth memories and ghosts from the past. Trish obviously had spent hours on the wedding decorations, and he’d managed to undo her work with one false step. He forced the finger-pointing voice to the back of his mind and attempted to burn off the chill that now hung in the room. “You live here in Miller’s Creek?”
“Yes.” She pinched off the word. “My son and I live here. At least for now.” She didn’t look at him while she maneuvered the lights back on the branches with agile fingers.
Son? Now he remembered. Dani had mentioned something about Steve’s sister losing her husband in a freak accident. A cow kick—or was it a horse? And how long ago? “You’re leaving town?”
“I don’t want to, but we don’t always get what we want, do we?”
True, but sometimes what you thought you wanted wasn’t what you needed. Andy rose to his feet, his hands cupped to contain the glass shards. “No, we don’t. You have a trash can?”
Trish’s tawny eyes looked his way. She grabbed an empty box and hurried to him. “Here.” She glanced around the stage, her face gloomy, her shoulders slumped. “Are they all broken?”
“Don’t know.” He dumped the pieces in the box, where they pinged against each other. “Is there some place I can buy replacements?”
She rubbed one arm and shook her head. “No. I had them shipped. I’ll drive to Morganville tonight after the rehearsal to see if I can find something that’ll work.”
The sadness on her face made his breath stick in his throat. He’d been in Miller’s Creek less than an hour and had already goofed things up. “I’ll go with you and pay for them since it’s my fault.”
Trish’s shoulders rose, then fell. “It’s no one’s fault. It’s just something that happened.” Her tone was flat and lifeless. She returned to the branches and hoisted another one back into position.
Just something that happened. A shaft of light streamed through the stained glass windows and rested on her, and she slumped over like she couldn’t bear the weight of the world any longer. Was she remembering the accident? He removed a pack of peppermint gum from his shirt pocket and popped a piece in his mouth. Her problems made the mess with Sheila seem trivial in comparison. What could he do to make things better?
She turned her gaze his way. “Dani told me you’re engaged. When’s the big day?” Trish strung lights along a tree branch. Perfectly.
He shifted his weight to the other leg, then squatted to pluck glass from the carpet. “Uh, we’re not . . . I mean . . . well, it’s over between us.”
She raised her head, and her brown hair shimmered under the light. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Don’t be.” He stood. “It’s for the best.”
Andy let out a half-laugh. “Turns out she still had a thing for her ex-boyfriend.” Thank the Lord he’d found out in time. A wife would be wonderful, but not the wrong wife.
For a moment she didn’t speak, but her face took on a knowing look. “That must’ve been painful.”
He nodded, his lips pressed together. “It was hard, but God can bring good from hurt.”
Trish stared at him like she was trying to get a read on him, and then turned back to the lights. “So neither one of us is really in the mood to celebrate—especially a wedding.” Her expression matched her cynical tone.
Out in the hallway, muffled voices grew closer. The hall door swung open, and the smell of Mama Beth’s home-cooking made his mouth water. A little boy who looked like Trish raced toward them, then stopped, his dark eyes round. “Whoa! What happened here?”
Dani and Mama Beth followed, their mouths ajar. After them came Steve Miller, the mayor of Miller’s Creek, and Dani’s soon-to-be husband.
“It’s all right. Don’t worry.” Trish rushed to the two women and laid a hand on each of their arms. “It’s nothing that can’t be fixed, I promise. We just had a little accident.”
Andy watched through narrowed eyes at how Trish comforted the two women, when just a few minutes before she’d been in tears. A good way to get a severe case of whiplash.
Steve sauntered toward him, his boots scuffing against the carpet, a friendly grin on his face.
He shook Steve’s hand. “How you doing, Mayor?”
The other man’s grin expanded as he tucked his fingers in his jean pockets. “I’ll be doing a lot better in a couple of days.” The little boy streaked by. Lightning fast, Steve untucked one hand and grabbed his arm. “Hold on, tiger. I don’t think you have any business up there. Have you met Aunt Dani’s friend?”
The boy skewed his lips in a thoughtful pose and shook his head.
“This is my nephew, Bo.”
Andy stretched out a palm. “Give me five, buddy.”
Bo reared back and delivered a hearty slap.
“Ouch!” Andy pretended to shake off the sting. “Man, I’ll bet you can throw a baseball really far with that kind of muscle power.”
The boy nodded, his face creased with a grin. “Yep, but I can’t catch so good.”
“Well,” corrected Trish as she came to stand with them. “You can’t catch well.”
Andy assumed a catcher’s position beside him. The little guy had to be missing his daddy. Maybe he could help. “I used to be a catcher, so I can give you some pointers later. Would you like that?”
Bo’s eyes lit. “Yeah.”
“Yes, sir.” Trish’s tone held a warning.
“I mean, yes, sir.” He looked toward his Mama. “Is it okay if we play catch, Mom?”
She sent Andy a tight-lipped smile, her expression cloaked with reserve, but when she turned toward her son her face softened, and she tousled her son’s hair. “Of course, but it might be tomorrow since Mr. Tyler’s already promised to help me clean up this mess.”
“Almost looks like a tornado touched down in here.” Steve rocked back on his heels and jangled the coins in his pocket.
“A tornado named Andy.” Trish gave a play-by-play account.
Steve laughed at the story, but Mama Beth and Dani still fussed about like a couple of hens. “That’s one way to get out of carrying more boxes.” Steve winked. “I’ll have to remember that move.”
“Hey, look at me!” Little Bo perched on the piano railing, one foot in front of the other, his arms out to balance. Andy’s heart moved to his throat. One wrong step would hurdle him toward the slivers of glass still embedded in the carpet.
All of them raced for the railing, but Andy arrived first. He grabbed Bo by the waist and slung him over one shoulder, amused at the boy’s contagious belly laugh. “Come here, buddy, before you fall and hurt that amazing pitching arm.”
Trish joined them, eyes wide with panic, her face pale and strained. She gripped Little Bo’s arms. “How many times do I have to tell you not to pull stunts like that?” Her voice shook as she knelt, her face inches from his.
The boy said nothing, and his lips stuck out in a pout.
Steve laid a hand on her shoulder. “Sis.”
Volumes passed between the brother and sister before Little Bo bolted for the door. Trish raced after him, her dark eyes full of hurt.
Both men faced the door, an awkward silence between them. Steve cleared his throat and turned, his eyes fixed on the floor. “Sorry about that. Trish is . . . uh . . . going through a rough time.”
Andy nodded. An understatement if he’d ever heard one. Based on what he’d seen, he was pretty sure not even Steve knew exactly how rough.