“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Bea Halloran moaned. Holding one sparkly high heel in each hand, she shook them in the direction of her tablet screen. The device leaned against one of the three massive suitcases she was filling with half her wardrobe.
Brody Emerson’s dry expression filled the screen, his mouth its usual not-another-shoemergency grimace. “Maybe not a world-peace-level crisis, Bea?”
She made a face at her best friend—the person she trusted more than anyone in the world.
Except her fiancé. Maybe.
She’d been joined at the hip with Brody ten times as long as she’d been with Jason, so there was a level of comfort there, an innate, gut-level knowing, that she still didn’t have with the man she planned to wed.
Something to develop over a lifetime. It was okay to learn about one’s partner over the course of a marriage, right?
Brody, on the other hand—no mysteries there. And she’d listened to enough rowing minutiae over the last twenty years to fill a four-inch binder, so she didn’t feel too bad harassing him about her footwear dilemma.
“Two glittery pairs seemed the right call when I was out shopping, but now I’m thinking I should have gone for simple and flat. Black and brown,” she said. “Maybe red for the holiday theme. I’m going on a do-it-yourself wedding show, not Real Housewives of Montana.”
Brody ran a hand through his thick sandy-blond hair and shook his head. “I thought the production company gave you a packing list.”
Somehow, when he reminded her of that, it didn’t chafe her the way Jason’s similar reminder had when he texted her twenty minutes ago.
“Sort of,” she said. “They didn’t go as far as stiletto color.”
She deposited the shoes in one of the overflowing cases and picked up her packing list. The paper shook in her hand, blurring the neatly typed suggestions for what she’d need during the next two weeks. The minute Jason had complained about her teeny executive functioning weakness to one of DIY I Do: Times Two’s ever-helpful production assistants, the PA typed up a guide to everything Bea could possibly require during filming that production wouldn’t supply. Holiday-themed wedding planning clothes. Outdoor apparel suitable for Montana in the winter. Fancier attire for the rehearsal, preferably in Christmas red and gold to match the wedding’s theme.
The wedding dress Bea had to make herself to meet the criteria of the show, but that wasn’t quite finished.
She winced at the screen.
Brody’s show of faux agony faded into seriousness. “You’ve got this, Sparks.”
A silly nickname, but better than her family’s usual “endearment” for her, Bumble. Way better to be a flash of light, a fire starter, than a bumbling mess.
Except for those times where I’ve proven the latter.
Getting Posy, her florist shop, off the ground had made her keenly aware of details in a way she’d never forced herself to care about before. So far, she’d rocked the wedding plans. Yeah, there were still a hundred things to complete. But that would just give the crew more things to film once she was in Sutter Creek at her sister’s wilderness wedding lodge, DIYing it on camera.
She couldn’t bumble that. Not her wedding, or anything that would follow.
And as always, Brody’s encouragement revved up her self-confidence.
“Yes, coach,” she teased. He was a former Olympic rower—former gold medalist—and the current coach of the men’s team at a Seattle university. He probably muttered pithy motivational wisdom in his sleep. He’d definitely sprinkle it on his Corn Flakes if he lowered himself to eating simple carbohydrates for breakfast.
He’d never teased Bea about being more of a dreamer than a planner, but her gummy bear habit was fair game.
“What about you?” she said. “Are you done packing? I made your boutonniere today.” She’d never considered anyone else as her attendant—she couldn’t get married without Brody being the first person at her side. He’d happily claimed the role of man of honor.
“You make boutonnieres this far out?”
“It won’t wilt. It’s nonperishable.”
“Ah, yeah. Because of Mr. Marrying-a-Florist-but-Doesn’t-Like-Flowers.”
“Brody…” she warned. Someone staunchly opposed to getting married really didn’t get a say in the marital plans of others. Brody had never hidden his thoughts on falling in love and getting married, which kept the questions about why the two of them had never tried dating to once or twice a week instead of constant. “We’ve been over this. I’m more than floral arrangements. And he and I don’t need to have the same interests to get married.”
Jason had announced early on in their relationship that he wasn’t a flower guy. She tried not to be too hurt, since it was her literal livelihood, albeit one she’d only fallen in love with a couple of years ago and recently decided to turn into her career. It had taken her a while to find her place, which meant no end of grief throughout her twenties. But turning thirty, moving to Seattle, meeting Jason, starting her business… Her life was finally starting to fit into the Halloran family mold of working one’s ass off at a purposeful job and pairing up with someone for the ride. Having a family eventually, too. Her sister was head over heels for the game warden in their close-knit Montana hometown, and her brother and his wife were raising the cutest twins to walk the earth. In marrying Jason, Bea would finally fit in.
Bea knew the look on Brody’s face well. Equal parts “Anyone wanting to get married is asking for it” and “Are you sure you want to make a lifetime commitment to that guy?”
She wished he was in the room with her so she could crumple her packing list and flick it at his head.
He rubbed his face with both hands and mumbled something she couldn’t catch. Nor was she going to ask for clarification—she could guess at the sentiment.
“No raining your anti-marriage propaganda over my big week,” she ordered. “You promised. I’m going to need you in my corner—over text, anyway—until you make your way home on Wednesday.” Brody would participate in the filming, but only on the night before for the rehearsal and the actual day.
“I am always in your corner.”
“I know. I’d be a mess without you.” No. She needed to stop thinking like that. She could clean up her messes herself.
“I take it Jason’s working late?” Brody said. “He’s not helping you pack?”
“I didn’t need him to.” She managed to still her hand enough to glance from the beginning to the end of the list. “I think I have everything.”
Most certainly inaccurate. She always forgot something when she traveled.
Time to break that streak.
“If you forget something, I can bring it with me,” he offered.
“Thanks, but I need to appear competent from moment one. When Jason and I step off the plane tomorrow, the cameras will be on. I’ll need to be put together in a way I’ve never managed before.”
DIY I Do: Times Two was a massively popular StreamFlix show, based around the idea that a similar wedding theme could be executed with a large budget or a small one. She and Jason had successfully bid to be the extravagant example, for the special Christmas episode, no less. When it aired, it would boost Bea’s florist shop into the Seattle stratosphere. The business her sister Emma owned with her fiancé would benefit, too. Emma and Luke—Brody’s cousin, incidentally—owned the newly renovated Moosehorn River Lodge, and Emma had plans to turn it into a luxe wedding destination. The producers couldn’t stop gushing about the glam-in-the-woods setting being perfect for an upscale wedding with rustic touches. With StreamFlix as the platform, Bea and Emma couldn’t lose on the publicity front.
Having the production budget cover the ever-inflating wedding bill was a bonus, too, given Bea was strapped for cash after pouring everything she had—and lots she didn’t—into Posy.
“Pardon me for disagreeing,” Brody said, “but I like how you’re put together. Emma and Nora already have the market cornered on Halloran sisters who dream about spreadsheets and day planners. I love how you bring some spontaneity into the world.”
You’re pretty much the only one.
“What plans are you changing now?” Jason’s stiff voice came from behind her.
She jumped, dropping the paper. She whirled to face him. “Nothing’s changing. I’m doing a final check to make sure I have everything.”
“Given you’ve packed half the contents of our condo, I don’t see what you could be missing,” Jason said woodenly.
His undone tie was the only sign he’d been at the office for twelve hours. Otherwise, he was completely put together. His short blond hair swooped precisely to the side; the only creases in his suit were the ones put there by the dry cleaner. Some days, it was surprising he didn’t literally shine, he was so polished. Her opposite, really, which was a good thing. They balanced each other out. She helped him think big and relax, and he helped her focus on a single path.
He seemed unfazed that he’d startled the living bejesus out of her. She was willing to cut him some slack—the mess in the bedroom was tease-worthy, and he’d been completely supportive of her getting-married-on-TV gambit.
She flung her arms around him. “One day closer to getting married!”
He was as stiff as a bundle of wire flower stems.
“What’s wrong?” Had he heard Brody’s dig about him working late?
“We need to talk,” he said, an edge to the voice she’d first fallen in love with two years ago when he’d ordered a milkshake from her struggling ice cream truck and then offered to take her out for dinner that night. Usually, his words came out confident. Tonight, they were plain brisk.
Alarm rang through her. She exchanged a quick glance with on-screen Brody.
Concern filled her best friend’s brown eyes. “How about I leave you two to it? Call me when you get to Montana.” He gave her a little salute and then the Call Ended by Host notification popped up.
She sat on the edge of the bed and played with the hem of her tulle skirt. She hadn’t worn tutu-style anything since she quit her short-lived job as a theme park princess years ago, but she’d found the flouncy garment when she was digging in the back of her closet and decided it might look fun on camera.
Jason’s serious expression, however, was the opposite of fun.
“Did the stock market crash or something? You look miserable,” she said.
His mouth flattened. “I am miserable.”
Her heart caught in her throat. “Why?”
“This!” He waved a hand at the suitcases and the boxes of florist supplies and wedding paraphernalia, ending his gesture with a flourish in her direction.
Uh, excuse me? “What, you don’t like the wedding plans? Or my skirt?”
“It’s not your skirt, Beatrix. It’s…it’s you.”
Her face went numb. She couldn’t have heard that right. Her lips felt like rubber cement, flapping uselessly. “Me?”
He jammed his fingers into his hair. “Crap, not exactly. It’s you and it’s me. Or rather, that we’re so different. I thought we could work with that. But the closer we get to our wedding, the sillier you’ve gotten with preparing for this damn show, I realize we can’t.”
She couldn’t decide which of his words she needed to focus on most. “You think I’m silly?”
He sat on the end of the bed. Not close to her, like he might if he were trying to make things better. Two feet away, gripping the comforter and staring at the floor with the singular focus of a man who’d apparently just figured out he proposed to a person he considered a joke.
The mattress didn’t make a sound as he sat. Pretty sure it had cost more than her aging Volkswagen Beetle. Moving into Jason’s condo had come with a big jump in thread count and a killer view. It never felt entirely like home, which she always thought was her issue, her self-esteem.
Maybe it wasn’t actually home. Had she sensed something neither of them had figured out until now?
“I can’t marry you,” he said.
The staccato syllables dug into her like shrapnel.
“We have to get married,” she said. “We have a contract with DIY I Do. And my shop and the lodge are depending on this—”
“And none of that has to do with us being in love!” Face flushed, he tugged at the collar of his shirt hard enough to pop a button.
Her heart was beating a thousand miles a minute. “Of course we’re in love.”
His gaze collided with hers. “Are we?”
We have to be.
This was her chance to squash her mercurial nature that stopped everyone from taking her seriously. What was more serious than marrying an investment banker?
“Bea.” He reached for her hand. “Be honest with yourself.”
She snatched her fingers away. “Telling myself things is the least of my worries. What am I going to tell my family, our friends, the production crew? And breaking the contract won’t be cheap.”
Those shouldn’t be her biggest concerns. They shouldn’t overshadow the loss of the man who was supposed to be the love of her life.
Sludgy guilt slicked her insides. It couldn’t be true.
“Why now?” she pressed.
“I thought I could do it. But this week, dozens of my coworkers have asked me if I’m excited to get married. And every time, when I said ‘yeah,’ I wanted to puke. When my boss told me to leave the office to finish packing this evening, I had to run for my garbage can the minute he stepped out the door.” Air shuddered from his lips. “Is my timing bad? Sure. It’s necessary, though. Better now than after we complete more filming, or after we exchange vows. Make up whatever story that suits you. Blame me.” He stood. “I’ll cover my half of the costs.”
“Do you understand how much we’ll owe if we don’t go through with a wedding? The food, the flowers, decor for the entire lodge. Chantilly lace and truffles. Travel bills.” Her head was starting to spin. “And it’s not just the ceremony. It’s a whole weekend of events. Not to mention the cost of ten days of shutting down most of the lodge for Luke and Emma—”
He scoffed. “Your sister’s not going to charge us.”
“How could she not? It’s a week and a half of income! She can’t snap her fingers and fill rooms.”
“Christ, whatever. I’ll pay half of that, too.”
“Leaving me with the rest!” She swallowed, trying to temper her tone from shriek to calm. “You’re well aware I can’t afford that.”
“We took a risk on this, Bea. You read the contract just like I did.” So calm. Bored, almost. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was delivering a monthly report, not jilting his bride the week before the wedding.
“It’s not the contract that’s letting me down, it’s you.”
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he stood. “I’ll go to a hotel for a night or two so you have time to pack your things.”
Wait. Packing? She held up a hand. “You’re kicking me out?”
“It’s…not your place.”
Ouch. But…of course. The condo was in his name, not hers.
“Right. Should have been another sign, I guess? That the sum total of my possessions I bothered to unpack is my French press and a handful of books on the shelf?” Humiliation engulfed her. “I’m supposed to go to Montana tomorrow. We are supposed to go.”
He shook his head slowly. “Go if you need to. Use the storage unit for as long as you need it. I won’t do anything to your stuff.”
Mainly because it’s not as nice as your own stuff.
Had he always only tolerated her presence?
“I’m not using your fricking storage unit.” She jolted to her feet. “Give me two hours. I already packed a lot of my clothes and personal items. I’ll bag the rest up and keep it in my office at the shop. And I’ll take the hotel room tonight. I don’t want to spend another minute in your condo.”
“Okay.” That weird, cold tone again. She hated it.
She wished Brody hadn’t hung up. That he’d witnessed this, heard the blow-by-blow, so that she didn’t have to recap it for him. The thought of explaining this to the people she loved made her want to puke, and Brody would be able to tell if she edited the sordid tale.
Unless he was furious with her for jeopardizing his cousin’s business…
She started shaking. Holy God. What were Emma and Luke going to do? Talk about people taking a risk—they had, on her.
She’d have to face them and tell them the truth tomorrow. And the production team. The host had been so kind. Would they have some sort of backup plan?
Her disbelief hardened to anger. “I’d complain that you’re leaving me to deal with the fallout, but at least it will save me from having to see your face.” She spat it more than said it.
How had she gone from wanting to spend the rest of her life with this man to not wanting to be in his presence?
Her knees were jelly, but she needed to buck up, find a solution.
“It was your idea. It’s not my mess to clean up,” Jason said. “Unless you avoid it and flit off to something different like you usually do.”
“You…you said you liked that I was a free spirit,” she said, words strangled. “Said I brought surprise to your life.”
“And I decided it’s not a trait I want to live with.” He looked away. It was close to an eye roll.
How dare he! She’d built up a good wall against people who didn’t appreciate her for who she was, but that hammer left a crack.
Maybe the fact it didn’t demolish you is a sign?
Maybe. She straightened her shoulders. “Don’t get me wrong—I think this is cruel timing. You signed on just as much as I did. It’s not my problem alone. But other than that? You’re doing me a big favor. I don’t want to marry someone who looks down on me.”
If I wanted to live with constant criticism, I never would have left home.
Come to think of it, he’d been flinging passive-aggressive frustration at her for a couple of months now, and she was so conditioned to accept it that she’d barely processed his increasing unhappiness. She could admit that to herself and acknowledge he was a massive jerk.
She flicked her hand in the universal gesture for “you’re dismissed.”
“Nope. I have to keep packing.”
Except, instead of for two weeks and a wedding, she was packing up her whole life.
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