Sunday, January 18, 2009

Stand-In Groom - Chapter 1

Stand-In Groom

Barbour Publishing, Inc (January 2009)

Chapter 1

Nothing like running late to make a wonderful first impression. Anne Hawthorne left a voice-mail message for her blind date, explaining her tardiness, then crossed her office to the gilt-framed mirror that reflected the view of Town Square through the front windows. At a buzzing jolt against her waist, she flinched, smearing her lipstick.


The vibrating cell phone chimed out a wedding march. A client. She reached for a tissue to repair her mouth while flipping the phone open with her left hand. “Happy Endings, Inc. This is Anne Hawthorne.”

“I can’t do it! I can’t marry him!” Third call today.

Why had she agreed to be set up on a date the Thursday of a wedding week? If it were just the regular weekly dinner with her cousins, she could skip out and get some work done. “Calm down,” she said to her client. “Take a deep breath. And another. Let it out slowly. Now, tell me what happened.”

Fifteen minutes later, still on the phone, she pulled her dark green Chrysler Sebring convertible into a parking space in front of Palermo’s Italian Grill. She sat in the car a few minutes—air conditioner running full blast—and listened to the rest of her client’s story.

When the girl paused to breathe, Anne leaped at her chance. “I completely understand your concern. But sweetie, you have to remember most men aren’t interested in the minute details of a wedding. Just because he doesn’t care if the roses are white variegated with pink or solid pink, don’t take that to mean he doesn’t love you
anymore. Which ones do you like the best?”

“The variegated roses,” the bride-to-be sniffled into the phone.

Anne turned off the engine and got out of the car. The heat and humidity typical for the first day of June in central Louisiana wrapped her in a sweaty embrace. “Then get the flowers you like. He will be happy because you’re happy. Do you want me to call the florist in the morning?” One more change the day before the wedding. Saturday couldn’t come fast enough.

“Do you mind?”

“That’s what I’m here for.” She opened her planner and made a note at the top of the two-page spread for tomorrow. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Miss Anne. I’ve got to call Jared and apologize.”

“See y’all tomorrow.” Anne made sure her phone was set to vibrate-only mode and entered the most popular new restaurant in Bonneterre. Maybe she should have left the planner in the car, but she would have felt naked, incomplete, without it.

The heavenly aroma of garlic, basil, and oregano mixed with the unmistakable yeasty scent of fresh bread and wafted on the cool air that blew in her face when she opened the door. Her salivary glands kicked into overdrive, and her stomach growled. She really needed to stop skipping lunch.

Winding through the crowd of patrons awaiting tables, Anne scanned faces for the man her cousin Jenn had been absolutely dying to set her up with for months. She’d made a point of watching the local news broadcast on Channel Six last night so she’d know
what he looked like. Her right heel skidded on the slatelike tile and she wobbled, her foot sliding half out of the black mule. Anne hated shoes that didn’t stay on her feet of their own accord, but they were fashionable. She righted herself and arrived without further incident at the hostess station.

“Miss Anne!” A young woman in a white tuxedo shirt and black slacks came out from behind the high, dark wood stand and threw her arms around Anne’s waist.

She recognized the girl as a bridesmaid in a wedding she’d coordinated just a month or so ago. What was her name? “Hey, sweetie! It’s so good to see you. How are you?”

The bubbly brunette stepped back. “I’m great. I’ll be getting my degree in August, and I already have job offers from advertising agencies in Baton Rouge and Houston.”

Anne smiled, remembering the girl in a pewter, floor-length straight skirt with a corset-style bodice. The bride had let each of the girls choose which style top they were most comfortable in. Gray bridesmaids’ dresses. Purple and lavender florals and bunting. The Garrity-LaTrobe wedding. Six female attendants. Of course! “How exciting. Congratulations, Carrie.”

“Thanks. Are you meeting someone here?”

“I am, but I don’t see him. The reservation was for seven fifteen under my name.”

The girl ran her french-manicured acrylic nails down the waiting list and stopped at a crossed-out line. “Here you are. They were getting ready to reassign your table, so you got here just in time. Follow me, please.”

Walking through the packed restaurant behind the slender, petite young woman, Anne tried not to feel self-conscious. At nearly six feet tall and doing well to keep herself fitting into a size eighteen, she hated to imagine what others thought when they compared her to someone like this little hostess—five foot fourish with a waist so small she could probably wear Anne’s gold filigree anklet as a belt. When working, Anne rarely thought about her stature or size. In public, though, all the comments and teasing she’d received when she’d reached her full height at age thirteen rushed back into her memory. If only she’d had some athletic ability, she might have been popular and not fallen for a man who’d strung her along until he
didn’t need her anymore.

“Here we are.” Carrie gave a bedimpled grin and bounced away.

“Thank you.” Anne chose the chair facing the entry and set her purse on the floor and her planner on the table. She glanced at her watch again. Seven thirty on the nose. Surely her date wouldn’t have given up waiting on her after only fifteen minutes.

“Still waiting on someone?” The young waiter—probably a student at the Bonneterre branch of the University of Louisiana—handed her a thick, faux leather–bound menu.
Not that I want to be. “Yes. He’s probably just running a little late.”

“Can I go ahead and get you something to drink while you wait?”

“Sprite with a cherry and twist of lime, please. Are Mr. and Mrs. Palermo here tonight?”

“Yes, ma’am, I believe the owners are here. Is anything wrong?” Worry etched the young face.

She gave him the reassuring smile she’d perfected over the years of working with nervous brides and frantic mothers of the bride. “No. I’d like to discuss planning a few events with them. But only if they have time. If they’re busy, I can come back early next week.”

His relief obvious, he grinned and nodded. “Yes, ma’am. And I’ll be right back with your cherry-lime Sprite.”

She turned her attention to the menu, pleased to see the broad range of selections.

The waiter returned with her soda. “Here you are. Can I get you an appetizer while you wait?”

She probably shouldn’t, but—“I’d like the fried calamari and crawfish tails, please, with the cayenne-Parmesan dipping sauce.”

“Excellent choice. My favorite.”

She listened to the specials, making a mental note of the eggplant roulade—“Fried or grilled rounds of eggplant smothered in a spicy cream sauce with crawfish, bacon, and fresh spinach”—and the jambalaya alfredo—“With chicken, andouille, and traditional Cajun seasonings in the cream sauce.”

“I’ll be back with your appetizer in a little bit.” He glanced at the still-empty chair across from her but didn’t comment before walking away.

Anne set the menu aside and zipped open her camel-colored leather planner. Taking out a legal pad and pen, she reviewed her notes all over the two-page spread for today and the notes for tomorrow, then wrote out a to-do list of what she still needed to accomplish before her eight o’clock meeting with the bride, groom,
and minister in the morning.

“Anne Hawthorne?”

She looked up at the voice and stood to hug former clients. She chatted with the couple for a few minutes before they continued on to their table.

Anne had just regained her seat when another former client came over. Anne hugged the young woman around the bulge of her pregnancy as she asked Anne to plan her baby shower. They looked at Anne’s calendar and set an appointment to discuss ideas and dates.

The waiter returned with the calamari and crawfish tails and eyed the empty place as he set the dish on the table. “Do you want to wait until your companion arrives before you order?”

Maybe she should call to see what was going on. “Give me a few minutes?”

He nodded. “Enjoy the calamari.”



Grabbing her purse but leaving the planner on the table, Anne crossed the restaurant to the quieter lobby area outside the restrooms. She dialed and pressed the small cell phone to her ear.

Without ringing once, his voice mail picked up. His outgoing message gave his office phone number, which she repeated in her head while waiting for the tone. “Hi, this is Anne Hawthorne. It’s...a little after eight, and I’ve been at the restaurant for a while and just wanted to see when you think you might be getting here.” She left her number and disconnected, then called his office phone, which rolled into voice mail after three rings. Rather than leave another message, when given the option, she hit the number 0. After a couple of clicks and an ad for the TV station, someone picked up.

“KCAN newsroom. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I’m trying to get in touch with Danny Mendoza.”

“Is this Anne Hawthorne?” the female on the other end asked.

Frowning, Anne started to pace. “Yes.”

“I’m so sorry I didn’t have time to call you before now. Danny got called in on a breaking news assignment and will be out in the field for the rest of the evening. He asked me to let you know he wouldn’t be able to meet you but that he would call you tomorrow.”

She squeezed her eyes closed and rubbed her forehead. “Thanks for letting me know. If you talk to him again this evening, tell him—” What? Thanks for standing me up? “Never mind. I’ll just leave a message on his cell phone.”

“Okay. Listen, I’m really sorry I didn’t have time to call you.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Anne ended the call, hooked the phone back on her waistband, and returned to her table. The aroma from the fried squid and crawfish on the plate in front of her tantalized her taste buds.

“Any word?” The waiter returned and tipped his head at the empty chair.

“Yes. He got called in to work so won’t be coming.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Do you want me to box this up for you?”

“If you could bring me a box, that would be great, because I’ll never be able to eat all this and a meal, too.”

“You mean—you’re going to stay?”

Anne tried not to laugh at his surprised expression. “Of course. I’ve been waiting to eat here for a month. I’m going to have the eggplant roulade—with the eggplant grilled instead of fried.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll go place your order now and bring you another drink.”

“Don’t forget the box for this.” Anne served a few pieces of crawfish and calamari onto the small appetizer plate. Jenn always liked Anne to bring home leftovers after dining out, to see what other restaurants were doing.

At the thought of her restaurateur cousin, Anne shook her head. This was the third time Jenn had set Anne up on a blind date and the third time it hadn’t worked out. Jenn had a habit of setting Anne up with men of Jenn’s taste rather than Anne’s type. At five foot six, Jenn didn’t have to worry about towering over her dates.
Five inches taller, however, Anne wanted to date someone who was at least six feet tall so she didn’t feel like quite such an Amazon beside him. But it seemed as though tall, single Christian men over the age of thirty were hard to come by.

Of course, every man Anne had gone out with in the past who had matched her ideal of the Perfect Man had ended up being Perfectly Wrong for her. Maybe she needed to stop focusing on the physical type and just get out and have fun meeting new people.

She spent her life making others’ dreams come true. Well, it was time for Anne Hawthorne, wedding and event planner extraordinaire, to start creating her own happy ending.

George Laurence perused the menu, surprised to find the wide variety of dishes listed. His experience with Italian restaurants in midsized American cities primed him to expect spaghetti, lasagna, and fettuccini. So far, Palermo’s Italian Grill in Bonneterre, Louisiana, appeared promising.

“So, George, where do you hail from in England?” Across the table, his employer’s local lawyer shook out the folded fabric napkin and laid it in his lap.

George closed the menu. “I spent my childhood in London. My late teens and early twenties in Edinburgh.”

“University of Edinburgh, huh? Heard that’s a great school.” Forbes Guidry handed his menu to the waitress and placed his order.

George considered his response as he ordered crawfish-stuffed manicotti. He’d wanted to live in America because he’d always heard that people weren’t judged by their family background, wealth, or education. After five years of working for one of the wealthiest people in the country, he’d learned otherwise. The social prejudices in
England and America differed but still existed. When most Americans found out he’d never attended college, they made assumptions about his intelligence and ranked him lower in their estimation.

He handed his menu to the server and returned his attention to the lawyer. “I wouldn’t know about the university. I never had the opportunity to attend. I started working when I was sixteen.” First, there would be an awkward silence, then a mumbled apology—

“I’m impressed.” Forbes took a sip of his water, seeming unflustered.

“Just from talking on the phone this afternoon, I would have guessed you had at least a master’s degree if not a PhD.”

George opened his mouth, but nothing came out. No one had ever given him such a compliment. Although, he had heard lawyers in Louisiana weren’t to be trusted. Was this man, with his tailored suit, expensive haircut and manicure, and impeccable manners, just one of those Artful Dodgers who could charm his way out of any
situation? Or was he as genuine as his Southern accent and friendly demeanor indicated? George hoped for the latter. He’d never pretended to be someone else before and needed an ally, someone who knew his true purpose and identity.

“Thank you.” No other response came to mind. Instead of putting on false modesty or being arrogant by focusing on his own merits, George returned to a previous conversation. “You said a housekeeper has been hired?”

“Yes, but since no one’s been in residence, she just goes by every so often to dust and let the exterminators in, that kind of thing. The house was built like a typical English manor, or so I’m told. There are two bedroom suites in the basement beside the service kitchen. I figured you’d take one and Mrs. Agee would take the other. Now, to business.” Forbes reached under the table and retrieved a document from his briefcase.

The document. The addendum to George’s work contract—the contract he’d never wanted to sign in the first place. The rules by which he would have to live his life while in this quaint Southern city. He clenched his fists under the table. If keeping his work visa didn’t depend on this...

“I assume your employer discussed the details of the addendum with you.” Forbes handed the contract across the table.

George nodded, guilt clenching his gut. “Yes.”

“As his legal representative, it is my responsibility to remind you of the confidentiality clause. Should you reveal to anyone, including the wedding planner, the identity of your employer or that you are not Courtney Landry’s fiancĂ©, your employment will be terminated. As you know, if you lose your job, you will be in violation of your work visa and must return to England.”

The only reason why George had agreed to this charade. “Yes, I understand.”

“Take it with you and read over it tonight. Any questions you have can be discussed when we meet tomorrow at ten.”

George tucked the document into his own attachĂ© case. “Very good.”

“Whew. Now that that’s over, we can enjoy our dinner.”

“Yes, indeed.” George needed a neutral topic to have time to take his mind off the fact that he was about to spend the next five weeks living a falsehood. He still hadn’t figured out how to do it and maintain his Christian values. “Have you lived in Bonneterre all your life, Forbes?”

Over the salad course, the lawyer talked about Bonneterre as it had been during his childhood. George consciously made eye contact every fifteen or twenty seconds while also looking around the restaurant decorated to resemble a Tuscan villa.

Movement at a nearby table caught his attention. A waiter stopped, two fancy desserts perched precariously on his tray. With great ceremony and flourish, he placed the sweet delights on the table.

What was it about the patron that made him stand out? The fork in the young man’s hand trembled, and he never took his gaze off his pretty companion. Neither could be much older than twenty. The lass took a couple of bites of the chocolate confection, but her fork stopped when she went for the third. She frowned, then dug something out. A small box. A few moments later, she let out a high-pitched gasp and threw her arms around her beau’s neck. The lad dropped to one knee, and the crowd broke into applause.

George hoped the two young people had given this decision prayerful consideration. He hadn’t been much older than the newly engaged couple when he’d prepared to propose to his first love. Praise God he’d learned her true nature before making a complete fool of himself.

Forbes clapped with enthusiasm. “Good for them.”

“Are you married, Forbes?”

The lawyer held up his left hand and wiggled the empty third finger. “No. Don’t know if I ever will be, either.”

George sat back, surprised.

Forbes laughed. “Now, before you go getting the wrong idea about me, let me explain. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a woman my sisters and mother will find suitable for me. They’ve been trying for years. But the ones they like, I can’t stand.”

“And the ones you like?” George raised his brows.

“Humph. That’s the problem. I can’t even find one to bring home for them not to like.” He sighed. “I suppose when God’s ready for me to fall in love, He’ll throw the right woman into my path.”

“Hopefully you won’t be driving at the time.” George kept his expression serious.

Forbes blinked, then threw his head back in laughter, drawing the admiring gazes of several nearby female diners.

The waitress arrived with their meals. George glanced at the proposal-couple’s table. A woman in an aubergine suit knelt between the two, listening to the animated young woman, her focus earnest and interested. Her blond hair was caught up in a french twist, and even from this distance, he could see a sparkle in her electric
blue eyes. Everything about her—from her smile to the way she put herself below the level of the young couple—bespoke someone who put others before herself. The kind of woman he’d always dreamed of finding.

“George?” A frown etched Forbes’s celebrity-caliber face.

George nodded his head toward the beautiful woman still kneeling beside the other table. “Who do you suppose that is?”

“Well, well, well. I knew she had other plans tonight; I just never imagined...” Forbes’s smile took on a warmth usually reserved for a man’s mother, wife, or sisters—or sweetheart. “She’s a professional wedding planner. Right now, she’s listening to all the young woman’s childhood dreams of what her wedding should be like. When she meets with them in her office sometime next week—and don’t worry, they’ll be there—she’ll already have a preliminary budget worked out.”

George’s heart sank at the woman’s title. “Wedding planner? Is she—?”

“She is. She’s going back to her table now.” Forbes leaned to his left to watch her progress over George’s shoulder. “If I can catch her before she leaves, I’ll introduce you.”

George nodded, keeping his turmoil under tight control. This would have been a lot easier if she’d turned out to be some old, grandmotherly type. How would he ever convince this wedding planner he was the bridegroom when he found her so utterly
attractive? God, what have I gotten myself into?