Authors: Colette Auclair
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This book is dedicated to Elizabeth Cappon, a hunter rider, horsewoman, insightful literary mind, and wonderful friend who spent an inordinate amount of time listening to me talk about this book and advising me. You are a gem.
here are people
who refuse to get out of your life no matter how miserable you make them.
For Beth Fanelli, that person was Finn McNabb. The same Finn McNabb who was sitting this very moment at table twenty-seven, the very table she and her friends had been assigned. She swigged her champagne.
“I'm going to kill the wedding planner,” she said to Harris Stembridge.
“Not if I get to her first.”
“Why? And how do you know it was a her?”
“No gay male wedding planner worth his
sel de mer
would have let that girl wear that bridal gown. She looked like a float in a Sicilian first communion parade. Is that why you want to commit homicide?”
They stood in an entrance to the Grand Ballroom in Aspen's Hotel Jerome, with its antlered chandeliers and authentic historic charm. The table in question was a stone's throw away, and Finn sat in profile to Beth and Harris. Even though she hadn't seen Finn in five years, she knew it was him as surely as she knew she would slip off her sadistically painful sandals once her feet were under the table and out of sight.
“The seating chart sucks. See that guy at our table?”
“The hottie? Honey, I would've thought you'd pay the wedding planner extra for that specimen. If he turns out to be gay, you're going to have to remind me I'm taken. That's what Alonso gets for visiting his family in Mexico all month.”
“Oh, he's not gay.”
“Your gaydar works from here?”
“He's my ex.”
Harris's crystalline blue eyes opened wide and his square jaw dropped. He looked like a human exclamation point. “Shut. Up! Amanda never told me you were previously wed.” He sipped his champagne.
“We split five years ago when I was what? Twenty-six? And I never thought I'd see him again. It wasn't a terrible divorce. Just your basic irreconcilable differences, from getting hitched without thinking it through. But I never in a million years thought I'd see him again, especially not here.” She blew out a breath. “Crap on a cracker.”
“Do you want to leave?” Harris asked.
This was why their mutual friend, Amanda Brunswick, counted Harris as one of her best friends, and why Beth was considering doing the same. He was the best kind of good egg.
She shook her head so abruptly, her dangly earrings tapped her cheeks, annoying her. “We're both grown-ups. He'll probably be as surprised to see me as I am to see him. It'll be fine. I'll be fine. It's just going to be temporarily awkward.”
“Would you like me to be your date?”
“I thought you already were.”
“I mean a
date. A straightie.”
Beth stared at Harris's
-worthy face. She took in his coiffed golden-blond hair, near-perfect bone structure, and lightly tanned skin that he cared for with a small battalion of beauty products. Any woman would run through a brick wall to have him as a boyfriendâif he were straight. But he had trained as an actor and could pull it off for a few hours. This could be the perfect dose of confidence she needed. And it could work because none of the guests knew Harris. Yes. She would face down Finn with Harris on her arm. She would let Finn know that she was just fine, thank you very much.
Except for the part about how it sounded ridiculous, immature, and made her feel weak, like she didn't have the courage to face her ex-husband for a few hours in a social setting. She was better than that. In addition, last time she checked, they weren't starring in a telenovela.
“Tempting,” she said. “But we're not in high school. Plus, no offense, but speaking of gaydar, he would make you in a heartbeat.”
“I'm a great actor! Ask Grady. Why do you think he talked me into becoming a chef? He was afraid I'd get all the great roles and leave him in the dust.”
“You're too good-looking.”
“Ah. Point taken. Game, set, match.”
She smiled and took a deep breath.
He grinned, showing his even white teeth and devilish dimples. “You'll be spectacular.” He offered her his arm, which was encased in the sleeve of a designer tuxedo. She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow.
“Did you find our table?” It was Grady Brunswick, who appeared at Harris's side as Amanda came up next to him.
Beth looked at Amanda. “Yes, and guess who's sitting there?”
Amanda raised her eyebrows and tilted her head.
Amanda's eyes widened to saucerlike proportions. “
Beth tightened her lips and nodded.
Amanda stepped closer to Beth and kept her voice low. “You're kidding!”
“Dinner conversation could be more interesting than any of us suspected,” Beth said.
“Who's this Finn guy?” Grady asked.
“Wow,” Grady said. “You okay there, Beth?”
Beth smiled at Grady. She loved that her friend had married such a stand-up guy, and according to Amanda, he was a grade-A husband. It also didn't hurt that he was gorgeous, an international movie star, and she got to hang out with him.
“Mostly,” she said. “Yes.
Or I will be after the initial stupendously uncomfortable âHi, how are you?' ”
“If that doesn't work,” Harris said, “there's a delightful and effective little diversion called an open bar.”
Amanda faced Beth and grabbed her shoulders, looking her straight in the eye. “You're going to be fine. You have moved on. We're here for you.” It was like old times on the circuit, when they would psych each other up for challenging classes in horse shows, or after a difficult riding lesson or fall. Amanda squeezed Beth's shoulders, then smiled at her and let her arms drop.
“Thanks,” Beth said. “I can handle this; I was just temporarily caught off guard.
“Wait!” she said, turning to Harris. “How do I look?” She bared her teeth at him like a chimp. “Do I have anything in my teeth?”
“Spectacular, darling. Radiant. Do you think I'd let you go over there if you had so much as one of your gleaming mahogany hairs out of place, one speck of errant mascara on your cheek, one smidgen of lipstick beyond your lip line?”
“No, I guess you wouldn't. Thanks.”
“You look great,” echoed Amanda. “He'll eat his heart out.”
Beth drained her flute of champagne and let out a small burp.
Harris laughed and rolled his eyes. “Well,
might stop him.”
Beth took Harris's arm again. In her head, the theme from
began to play.
The foursome strolled through the crowded ballroom to table twenty-seven. Beth was grateful for Harris, because her legs were shaking. This was ludicrous! She never got this way. But this was Finn.
There are seven other people at the table to talk to, including Amanda and Grady. A few pleasantries and you're done. You don't have to sit next to him. Dinner will be over in no time.
There were four open chairs at the table, in pairs. One pair was next to Finn. Grady and Amanda could take those. Perfect. She and Harris would sit opposite Finn. She wouldn't feel pressured to talk to him much from there.
“Oh my God oh my God oh my GOD, YOU'RE GRADY BRUNSWICK!” screeched a gaunt woman in a gauzy flower-print dress, her graying strawberry-blond hair piled messily atop her head. She sat in the chair next to the pair Beth wanted. Great. Some starstruck, middle-aged hippie had to be at their table. The woman stood up. “You're my favorite movie star. Oh my God, I can't believe you're here!” Her bony, freckled hands flew to her hair, pointlessly smoothing the nest there. “My sister is going to just
! It would do me the greatest honor of my
if you would sit next to me.”
Grady looked at his wife, then at Beth. He put on what Beth had come to think of as his “deal with the public” face and said, “Thank you. Uh, that's very nice of you.”
The woman, clearly possessed, sat, grabbed his arm, and yanked. Grady plunked into the chair.
“Thank you so much, Mr. Brunswick. This is the best day of my life!” The woman looked pointedly at Beth, then at the empty chair next to Finn. “
.” Amanda gave Beth a big apologetic look and sat next to Grady, who was also sending huge apologies to Beth with his famous blue eyes.
Crap on a cracker. Crap on a cracker the size of Texas.
,” Harris said, pulling out a chair for her.
The chair Harris proffered was one seat away from Finn. Harris would sit next to him, bless his heart. Thankfully, Finn didn't seem to have noticed Beth, not with the circus going on across the way. Grady was introducing himself around the table, which was also incredibly helpful.
“You can't sit there!” It was Bird Nest, who was looking straight at Beth. Of course. Who else would it be? “Boy-girl, boy-girl. It's a wedding, after all.” She beamed at Grady, who was talking to another guest. “Love is in the air.” The woman sighed and Beth thought she saw little red hearts circling the barbed-wire hair.
Beth wanted to chuck her evening bagâwhich she had borrowed from Amandaâat the woman. Now she was stuck. Harris pulled out the chair next to Finn for her.
“Shall I get you a drink? Or a bottle?” Harris whispered as she sat.
There was wine on the table, and she wanted him to stay put for moral support. “No thanks. I'm fine. Sort of,” she whispered back. She hopedâunreasonablyâthat Finn would never see her. She watched Harris pour a glass of white wine for her.
“Bethany.” It was
. Finn's voice. It wasn't particularly memorable. It was deep enough, and pleasant, but unremarkable. But it was
. AndÂ .Â .Â . besides her grandmother, he was the only one who used her formal name. She wasn't prepared for this, the stark intimacy of him saying her name. A lightning bolt danced through her center.
This was it. The moment of truth. They would face each other. She closed her eyes.
We're both adults, it's been five years, just talk to the man.
She smiled a polite, stranger's smile, opened her eyes, and turned toward him.
He looked wonderful. Time had given him more laugh lines, but the damn things only made his eyes more twinkly. Over the years she'd sometimes entertained herself by imagining that his stomach had replaced his shoulders as the widest part of his body, that he sported a comb-over and was plagued by boils. Not a single aspect of her fantasy had come true. He wore a tuxedoâit looked expensiveâand he still had the same broad shoulders she used to love to hold when they'd kissed.
Damn, damn, damn!
He looked great, with his stupid-great coppery-brown hair cut much shorter than the ponytail he'd worn when they were married. Even so, his hair was unruly and long enough to curl over the back of his collar. And his Ã¼ber-masculine nose. And his mouth, which tipped up on the left side so it always looked like he was one second away from smiling. And his scruffily sexy two-day beard. And his stupid eyes, those damn stupid, thoughtful, perceptive, aquamarine eyes that could make her feel like she was the most fascinating person in the world when they deigned to focus on her.
Crap on a cracker!
She gasped despite herself.
Finn's lips were beaming a welcoming, crooked smile at her. It looked sincere. He was genuinely glad to see her.
“How nice to see you,” he said.
Before she could fully register this seemingly absurd fact, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. He didn't seem flabbergasted in the least. He could be so cool when he put his mind to it.
Beth felt dizzy, but she needed to man up. This was Finn. Just Finn. She had been married to him once and now she wasn't. He had nothing to do with her life anymore. He was just another guest. No big deal. No one special anymore. A man she had once loved who was now, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. She would be a polite dinner companion. Mature. Articulate. Worldly. She would be like Amanda. Her friend Amanda, who was right across the way and married to a big-deal superstar who was now also her friend by proxy. Which gave her more clout. She was terrific without Finn. She had moved on.
Finn was staring at her, still smiling. Then he took a breath and said softly, “You look great.” He held her gaze for a second more, then added, “Pardon me, where are my manners?” and introduced Beth to the woman next to him. “Kristen, this is Bethany. As it happens, we're old friends. Bethany, this is Kristen. She's a geologist.”
So he's dating a geologist. Or maybe he remarried. And “old friends”? That's what your ex-wife is?
Beth smiled and exchanged brief pleasantries with Kristen-the-geologist. How could Finn be so casual?
She knew he'd been surprised to see her, but he was like some Stepford creatureâperfect, polite, and distant.