LINDSEY CASTELLANO’S love-hate relationship with love was trumped only by her hate-hate relationship with microphones. Yet here she was, at her sister’s second wedding reception, as the maid of honor again, staring down a microphone again, to toast the newlywed couple again, before an enormous crowd in her hometown of Bliss, Illinois, the Most Married-est Town on Earth.
And, once again, Lindsey wished Natalie had picked Mom to stand beside her instead.
At Nat’s first wedding, Lindsey had wanted to relinquish the attendant duty for several reasons. Because she hated microphones. Because she hated crowds almost as much as she hated microphones. Because Nat had picked the wrong groom.
This time, though, Lindsey wished she could’ve passed the honor to Mom simply because she wished Mom were still here.
“Good evening,” Lindsey said into the evil microphone. Her voice bounced off the white textured walls. The audience—a mix of family and wedding crashers—eyed her from the dance floor as though they could see her smiley face panties. Despite the blustery late December weather outside, Lindsey needed a fan and a cold drink. “I was told this would be a small thing. Friendlies only.”
A few people snickered. A few grimaced. Natalie, resplendent in her wedding attire of jeans and the Second Chance Misfits T-shirt that she and CJ had asked all their invited guests to wear, offered her a sympathetic smile and a thumbs-up. Behind her, CJ grinned like the evil redheaded SOB that he was. But he made Nat and her four-year-old son, Noah, happy. He also gave Lindsey free drinks at his bar and was always good for a laugh, so she actually liked him a lot.
Lindsey sucked in a breath that the microphone caught and amplified so loud, the Mars rovers probably heard it. Her champagne flute wobbled in her sweaty hand, and her pulse hammered hard enough to crack a diamond. Words. She had to say a few more words, then she could return to obscurity.
“So I’ll make this short.” She had to, because her tongue was getting thick and dry, and there was no telling what she’d say if she didn’t. She’d had ten years of practice as a divorce lawyer. She should be able to handle a few words. But microphones did her in every time. “To my favorite sister in the whole world, and the man who had better not ever have reason to see me in a professional capacity. Congratulations, and many happy returns.”
Dad lifted his glass. “To Nat and CJ!” Clapping and shouts of “Cheers!” spread through the ballroom, from the deejay to all eleven of CJ’s sisters—Lindsey’s new competition for Most Favored Aunt status—to the whole of Bliss’s bridal brigade, Knot Fest committee members, and Bridal Retailers Association honchos who had crashed the wedding.
Lindsey passed the microphone to the deejay and chugged her champagne, letting the sting of bubbly in her throat wash away her discomfort, then escaped the spotlight.
Nat grabbed her in a hug. CJ joined in. The goober knew Lindsey hated enclosed spaces, but he had thirty years’ worth of experience in tormenting sisters.
“Isn’t that the same thing you said at my first wedding?” Nat said.
“Yes, but this time I’m optimistic you won’t need me.” Lindsey’s voice was almost steady. “Mom would’ve liked CJ.”
Nat squeezed harder. “You’re still coming to karaoke afterward? Family only this time. Cross my heart.”
As if Lindsey could tell Nat no for anything today. “Absolutely. But no singing for me.”
“That’s a given,” Nat agreed with a laugh.
Lindsey gave CJ a well-placed elbow to the ribs, and he backed off with an amused chuckle. Nat let go as well. Lindsey bent and planted a smacker on Noah’s cheek, and while the deejay announced the first dance, she eased away.
She needed air.
Her dad squeezed her shoulder on her way past. “Beautiful, hon. Your mom would’ve loved every word.”
Lindsey’s eyes misted.
Melancholy wasn’t her favorite mood, but it was something she’d gotten used to since Mom passed away.
Lindsey held up her glass and reached deep for her normal poise. “I’m going for a refill. You need anything?”
He declined. Lindsey headed for the bar. Other guests offered what she took as pained smiles and nods. Or, possibly, the townsfolk of Bliss were not at all disturbed by her presence, and Lindsey’s discomfort, loneliness, and awkwardness here had only been amplified by the liquid courage she’d needed to make the toast..
She returned the smiles and nods with as much dignity as she could manage. She did regularly have semi-friendly conversations with many of the people here, and she’d dated at least three of the single sons on The Aisle, Bliss’s equivalent of Main Street, over the years since law school. But she still needed space.
And a glass of wine.
She stuck to the perimeter of the room and inched toward the bar while Nat and CJ danced with Noah between them. The deejay, the flowers, the big ballroom in the exclusive country club, the buffet, and the centerpieces were not things Nat had planned for her wedding reception, but the townsfolk of Bliss had decided to give them to her anyway. It wasn’t every town that could pull off a surprise reception, but Bliss was unique. The local economy revolved around the wedding industry. Lindsey’s family had been in the bridal gown business for four generations now, with their boutique nestled in amongst jewelers, florists, tux shops, the party supply store, other bridal boutiques, and every other bridal shop imaginable on The Aisle. As of last summer, Nat was a local hero. CJ was popular in his own right, and so the folks who ran The Aisle had crashed the wedding and brought gifts as only they could.
Including an open bar.
Lindsey thanked the bartender for a glass of Honeymoon Paradise wine from the local winery, then turned to watch the newlyweds while she tried to slow her still-pounding heart.
“Hey, you okay?” said an elegant Christmas tree beside her.
Lindsey peered closer at the tree.
Kimmie Elias peeked out between the branches. Her normally unruly dishwater hair was tucked in a braid, and her pale skin glowed in the twinkle of the white fairy lights.
Lindsey nodded. Normal, she reminded herself. Calm, cool, collected. She slid behind the tree with Kimmie. “I haven’t seen you alone all day. Having fun?”
Kimmie winced. “Not exactly.”
“Your mother’s idea?”
Kimmie had talked, dined, and drank with nearly every single guy at the reception tonight. Not because she wanted to, if Lindsey knew Kimmie.
“Were any of them—you know,” Kimmie said. “Even close to not a bad match?”
Lindsey sipped the cool wine. She hated that question. It didn’t come often—thank God she’d wised up during college and quit talking about her gift—but her family and friends and a decent number of the guests here tonight knew she’d been calling bad relationship matches with eerie accuracy since puberty. Since she’d come home as a divorce lawyer, though, she was rarely asked for her opinion on relationships.
Which was fine with Lindsey.
“Jake wasn’t so bad,” she said to Kimmie.
Kimmie squeaked, then buried her face in her hands. “Oh, pumplegunker. He’s my cousin.”
Breathing was getting easier, and Lindsey’s racing heart was almost back under the speed limit. “You could move down South,” she said. “I reckon you’d fit right in. And you’d get away from your mother.”
“Mom’s gonna slice my fruitcake if she hears about this.”
Lindsey gave Kimmie a sympathetic nudge. “I’m teasing. He was actually the worst of all of them.”
Kimmie blew out a breath. “Did I tell you my fortune cookie said unexpected friends would play a pivotal role in my love life? I almost came down with the floosles today, but I didn’t want to miss Nat’s wedding.”
“A fake case of the flu and measles.” Kimmie peeked around the tree at the dance floor. “Mom would pretty much roast my chestnuts if I weaseled out of a singles night though.”
“It’s Christmas time. Surely she wouldn’t roast your chestnuts during the holidays.”
“Yes, she would. And her master plan—you know what? Never mind. Are you thirsty? The winery sent eight cases. It goes great with the cupcakes.”
Lindsey lifted her glass.
“You want a glass?” Lindsey asked.
Kimmie’s lips tightened into an unusual grim line. “Not really. I—you know I like CJ, and I’m happy for Nat, but I always thought we’d be the three Bliss-keteers. You know. You, Nat, and me. Single and happy and weird together. Or close enough.”
Lindsey and her melancholy totally got it. “You’ll find your match one day,” Lindsey said. “I’d bet all your cupcakes he won’t be in Bliss, and your mother won’t like him, but he’ll make you happy. And that’s all that matters.”
“I don’t think so,” Kimmie said, “but you will.”
Lindsey didn’t bother masking a laugh. Years of being saddled with her unfortunate talent had taught her a few things. One was what to look for in short-term hookups to maximize benefits and minimize the pain of the breakups.
The more important thing she’d discovered was that she didn’t have a match.
Most days, she was okay with that. But every once in a while, something would happen, like when Mom died, or Nat had Noah, or Nat got married, or Lindsey had to talk into a microphone—especially Lindsey talking into a microphone—that would remind her of the one she’d gotten too attached to.
The one she’d loved and left. The one who hadn’t been meant to be hers, no matter what her young heart had wanted. “Some of us are better off single,” she said to Kimmie.
“Hey, y’all,” a feminine voice said over the sound system.
Lindsey peeked around the tree and a cluster of crashers for a better view. One of CJ’s sisters had captured the microphone. And—Lindsey winced—she had a guitar.
“Which one’s that?” she murmured to Kimmie. Lindsey was trying to learn Nat’s new family—she was—but CJ had eleven sisters. Eleven, scattered all over Illinois. Two had moved to Bliss since CJ decided to settle here, but the sister with the guitar wasn’t one of them. And every last one of CJ’s sisters was thrilled to finally have a nephew in addition to their plethora of nieces.
Noah had gotten the best Christmas present ever. Lindsey was happy for the little guy, but Kimmie was right. They weren’t the three Bliss-keteers anymore. Nat—and Noah—had a new family.
Kimmie peered around the tree too. “That’s Saffron. I made her wedding cake last year. She’s the one who used to be in Billy Brenton’s band.”
“Billy…? Oh, right.” Some country music blah blah guy. Noah mentioned him from time to time, but Noah was also easily distracted, which saved Lindsey from ever having to listen to country songs.
“CJ, Natalie,” Saffron continued, “since everyone else has a surprise for you tonight, we wanted to contribute one as well.” Saffron’s husband, also with a guitar, nodded beside her. Lindsey almost smiled. Like Nat and CJ, Saffron and her husband didn’t spin Lindsey’s internal match-o-meter into stormy weather territory. It was a refreshing break. “Although, this is more for Noah,” Saffron said. “Congrats, you two crazy kids. Natalie and Noah, welcome to the family.”
Saffron adjusted her mic. She swept a gaze over the crowd, grinned big, then nodded to Dylan. They did some counting thing until both of them were bopping their heads to a silent beat, and then they started plucking and strumming their guitars.
Twang came out.
Lindsey had a clear view of Nat, who laughed. CJ did his pretend wince thing, as though he dreaded hearing his sister sing, but affection shone through. And Noah—sweet, innocent, dark-haired little Noah, the best nephew in the whole world—jumped and clapped. “Yeah!” he shouted over the music.
Saffron and Dylan smiled bigger, then the two of them launched into some lyrics.
Something about second chances and being ready for love and getting over the past.
For country music, it wasn’t bad. Very appropriate too, given that this was a second marriage for both Nat and CJ. The twang gave Lindsey another hit of melancholy—there went that old memory again—but at least there wasn’t anything about getting drunk or breaking up or dogs running away.
“I love this song,” Kimmie said over the music. “It’s so—Oh!”
She was looking past Lindsey. She straightened, put her hands to her cheeks. Lindsey turned, but Kimmie grabbed her. “Don’t look. Omigod, don’t look. Ooooh, pumplegunker. He’s—”
Whatever else she was about to say was suddenly absorbed into the sounds of a third guitar.
A third guitar that sent a shivery tingle from Lindsey’s toes to her tailbone and up to her touched-up roots. And then a third voice joined in. Softer, deeper, not amplified, but nearby.
Lindsey’s shivery tingle went spastic.
And despite Kimmie’s grip on her arm, Lindsey turned and sought the voice.
She knew that voice. Deep and strong and steady, with a drawl that made the smiley faces on her panties sigh in pure feminine satisfaction.
Her heart—an organ Lindsey tended to consider petrified by professional necessity—thumped along to the music, climbing higher and higher and bigger and bigger until it threatened to choke her.
He strolled through the tables on the other side of the bar, guitar on a strap over his shoulder, rugged stubble on his chin and jawline, short, sandy curls poking beneath his brown ball cap. His fingers coaxed magic from the strings, and his voice swirled into the room like a warm breeze. The hypnotic sound filtered into her empty parts, her lonely parts, her melancholy parts, amplifying the cracks in her soul. Ancient memories and regrets and guilt split the fractures bigger, wider, deeper.
Her heart beat out a thousand country songs of its own in the span of three seconds.
It was him.
Singing, strumming, making a path through the crowd. Beneath the Second Chance Misfits T-shirt sleeves his arms were more toned than she remembered, the spread of his shoulders wider, his jeans the right kind of perfect to show off his delectable backside.
But it wasn’t his body that had done it for her.
It was his voice. His smile. His eyes.
Kimmie was saying something, but Lindsey couldn’t understand the words. The wedding guests squealed. Some reached out and touched him. As if they recognized him. As if they knew him. As if he was famous.
Everyone in this room knew her Will.
Except he wasn’t her Will. He never had been.
She’d simply wished, a long, long time ago, that he could’ve been.
He reached the front of the room, climbed two steps to the small stage and joined Saffron and Dylan, who were both sporting smug grins while they all sang. Will stopped at the third microphone onstage, then his voice came through the speakers too. Lindsey blinked. She straightened against the wall, shrunk farther behind the tree and inhaled deeply. The room was too small. Too small, too crowded, too hot.
I’m going to be president.
It had been almost fifteen years ago, but she could still hear herself.
I’m going to be president, and the world isn’t ready for a first Bubba.
She needed to find a way to breathe. To shut off the memories.
And the memories were coming fast and furious.
Will by a fireplace in the ski lodge in Colorado over spring break, watching her with those honey-brown windows to his soul, plucking his guitar.
His adorable country boy smile flashing at her during a snowball fight.
His open, raw, unguarded affection when they’d made love the first time.
Her first time.
Lindsey blinked. Her lungs shuddered for air. She glanced desperately around the ballroom, looking for something—someone—else to focus on before the melancholy beat her. And she found him.
Noah was dancing like a dinosaur with three left feet and crooning along to every word.
With the wrong words, if she knew Noah, but he was giving it everything he had.
Will scanned the crowd, smiling and nodding to the people of Bliss. Making instant friends with the village that had raised Lindsey.
The song came to a drifting halt. Cheers erupted in the room—clapping, hollering, whistling, all of it combining into a celebratory cacophony that was so beyond what Lindsey could bear. The noise made her ears ache until the pain spread to her temples, down her neck, to her throbbing, pounding heart.
She didn’t know if she should laugh or cry.
Will stepped away from his microphone, reached around both his and Saffron’s guitars for a hug, then did a man-shake with Dylan.
Saffron stepped to her mic, a grin lighting her pixie face beneath her carrot red hair. “Hope y’all don’t mind. We invited one more wedding crasher.”
Most of the guests laughed.
“Billy can crash my party anytime,” Nat called, and the laughter started all over again.
Will treated Nat to a wink and a heart-stopping country-boy grin.
“I can’t believe Billy Brenton is here,” Kimmie whisper-shrieked.
The pressure built behind Lindsey’s nose.
Her Will had grown up to be the famous Billy Brenton. And now, he was here. In Bliss. At Nat’s wedding.
He’d done it.
He’d reached his dream.
She wanted to walk onto that stage and hug him and laugh.
But she didn’t have the right. She’d left him. Cruelly. Publicly. Humiliatingly.
And how long had he been a success? Two years? Three? Longer? She didn’t know. She didn’t follow country music.
She didn’t even follow wedding music trends anymore.
She hadn’t, not since that spring break.
But he’d done it. He’d made it. And he probably wouldn’t care that she was happy for him.
He probably wouldn’t remember her at all.
Kimmie gripped Lindsey’s hand. “I just want to watch. Don’t let my mom find me, okay? She’d—well. You know.”
Lindsey winced. Kimmie’s mother was formidable enough when she put her mind to regular tasks. Having the opportunity to offer Kimmie to Billy Brenton? She’d be unbearable. And although Lindsey hadn’t been a good match for Will—for Billy—all those years ago, she’d wanted him anyway.
He was the only one she’d ever truly wanted. The one she could’ve loved. And so a not-all-that-small, selfish part of her didn’t want to know if Will—if Billy Brenton—would be a not-bad match for Kimmie.
She looked at the stage again.
He wasn’t—he wasn’t a bad match for Saffron. The two of them together put Lindsey’s match-o-meter in sunny beach-day mode. But Saffron was already married to a guy who wasn’t a bad match for her.
Was Will—was Billy—a better match?
The room shrunk again.
“What do you think, Billy?” Saffron said into the mic. “You got another song in you tonight?”
Noah bounced. “Yeah!” he shouted.
Saffron grinned at him, an indulgent I’m-going-to-spoil-my-new-nephew-rotten grin. Will leaned into Saffron and said something. She nodded, and he went to his own microphone, chuckling. “Noah, bud, you got some moves,” Will said in that easy, warm, husky voice of his. “What’s your favorite tune?”
Noah shrieked something Lindsey couldn’t understand, but everyone around him cheered too. Still smiling, as ease onstage as if he’d been born there, Will looked at Saffron and her husband. “Y’all up for it?”
They nodded. There went the heads bopping again, but this time, Will started playing first.
First, and alone, his fingers picked individual sounds out of the guitar in such a way to inspire a nostalgic melancholy.
As if seeing him wasn’t enough inspiration.
He was mesmerizing. Larger than life. Owning the stage, owning the room.
Just a man, she reminded herself.
Saffron joined in plucking her own guitar. Her husband did too.
And then Will sang.
“Ain’t never been the kind who liked the cold, but there I was on that slope, praying for a quick way down.”
Lindsey’s breath caught. Her shivers got the shivers.
They’d met on a ski slope.
“Learned right quick to be careful what I wish, ’cuz soon I was tumbling into the snow, with my face all about to hit the ground.”
He looked about the room, smiling, playing, living it up, as comfortable in the limelight as Lindsey was suffocated by it. The crowd loved him. Half of them sang along, and they stopped while he held a note on his guitar.
“But then a snow angel caught me.”
Lindsey’s hold on her wineglass slipped. She pressed into the wall and hoped it didn’t give way.
Or maybe she hoped it did.
“She had an easy sassy smile that hit me like a baseball, big brown eyes that could make an ol’ boy drown, and I said, ‘Baby, that ain’t no way to break a man’s fall.’”
The pressure spread behind Lindsey’s eyes. They burned and stung like they hadn’t since Mom died.
That ain’t no way to break a man’s fall.
It was exactly what he’d said fifteen years ago when he’d crashed into her on the bunny hill.
He remembered her.
He’d written a song about her.
And the whole town of Bliss was singing along.
He was strumming the guitar hard and fast now. Noah was spinning. Nat and CJ were dancing and singing too.
“And now she’s showing me her pretty smiles, funny smiles, sexy smiles, her sassy smiles,
“She wears her biggest smiles, her brightest smiles, her secret smiles, her underneath-it smiles,
“And she’s wearing them just for me.
“My snow angel shows her smiles just to me.”
A horrified sputter slipped through Lindsey’s lips. Will launched into the second verse, natural as could be. Noah was dancing with three of his new aunts. CJ was twirling Natalie. Dad was nodding his head. Kimmie was singing along.
While Lindsey’s first love—her only love, despite her knowing better—stood onstage and sang a song about her.
No, not a song about her.
A song about her underwear.
* * *