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My upcoming novel, Destination Wedding, is getting closer to publication, so as a teaser, I'm sharing the first chapter with you. If you've read my latest novel, Summer of the Loon, then you've already had a chance to read the first chapter of DW. But for those of you who missed it - here you go.
Claire smiled and nodded at the woman in front of her, agreeing that the long-waisted sweater did make her look thinner and the dark, skinny jeans were perfect with it. Claire didn't want to be rude. After all, this lady was a regular customer at Claire's clothing store, the Belle Boutique, and regular customers were important for business. But she did wish the woman would hurry up and pick an outfit.
Claire absently pushed a stray strand of her sandy blond hair behind her ear and then began twirling the charm bracelet on her wrist round and round. She glanced at herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror to check her appearance. Her hair was still neatly in place and her makeup still fresh looking. She plucked off a stray strand of string that had somehow come to rest on her sleeve. Perfect.
Finally, the customer decided that she loved the outfit she had on, and Claire politely excused herself and said that Ariana would ring up her purchases.
Claire rushed to the back room and into her office, slipped off her pumps, and pulled on a pair of knee-high, leather boots over her leggings. Today, she was dressed warmly despite the fact that it should already be spring outside. Unfortunately, spring in Minnesota could come as early as March or as late as May, and this year it chose the latter. Wearing a sweater dress and leggings in April seemed ridiculous, but not when the temperature was in the forties outside and snow was still on the ground. Grabbing her red, wool coat off the back of the office chair, Claire walked swiftly through the store and up to the front counter where her Assistant Manager, Ariana Flores, stood behind the register.
"Did she buy the sweater and jeans?" Claire asked, noting that the customer was no longer in the store.
"Yes. And the dress and brown trousers, too. I rounded it all up nicely with a set of bangle bracelets and earrings," Ariana said.
Claire smiled at Ariana as she slipped on her coat. Ariana had been working for her for almost five years and Claire didn't know what she'd do without her. Ariana was in her mid-forties, just as Claire was, but where Claire was tall with light skin, hair, and eyes, Ariana was the exact opposite. Ariana's Hispanic heritage shined through with a golden-brown complexion, big, brown eyes, and straight black hair that she usually put up in a twist. She was shorter than Claire, which she made up for by wearing very high heels. And Ariana always dressed with a vibrant style, showing off the clothes they sold in the most flattering way. Most of all, though, Ariana was loyal and a good friend who sometimes teased the very serious Claire mercilessly when she felt like it.
"Wonderful," Claire said. "I should hand all my customers over to you so you can add accessories to their purchases."
Ariana shrugged. "It's what we do. By the way, Steven-not-Steve called again to remind you that you are having dinner with him tonight."
Claire held back the chuckle that threatened to escape her lips. Steven Sievers, the man she was dating, did not like being called Steve, and had bluntly reminded Ariana of that the one time she called him Steve. Ever since then, Ariana referred to him as Steven-not-Steve.
"Why in the world does he think I'll forget? I've never forgotten before."
Ariana waggled her eyebrows. "Maybe he doesn't want you to forget because he's hoping for a little nookie tonight."
Claire rolled her eyes. "You've been reading too many of those Fifty Shades type books. They're tarnishing your good sense."
Ariana laughed. "You'd better go or your daughter will be angry with you."
Claire waved goodbye and hurried out the door into the dreary, gray day. She picked her way across the parking lot that separated the strip mall where her boutique was located from another long strip of shops. Claire's boutique was just one of many in the Ann Arbor Shopping Center in the town of Maple Grove. Everything from clothing, jewelry, and shoe stores to pet supplies and craft stores filled the strategically arranged buildings with restaurants and hotels sprinkled here and there. It was a busy place to say the least, and the perfect spot for Claire's business.
The parking lot was splattered with muddy, mushy snow that was melting away and leaving dirty puddles in its wake. Claire stopped at the busy intersection that separated one shopping area from another and waited for the traffic signal to change so she could cross. She pulled her coat tightly around her against the chilly breeze. One thing was for certain, she was looking forward to leaving town for a week and getting away from this awful weather.
After crossing the intersection, Claire walked down another strip of shops until she came to her destination. Stepping inside Marissa's Bridal Shop, Claire almost ran into her daughter, Amanda, and her daughter's best friend, Kaylie Thompson, in the entryway.
"Am I late, Mandy?" Claire asked, out of breath from her trek across the shopping compound.
Mandy shook her head, her hair swishing back and forth from the movement. "No, we just got here."
Claire hugged both Mandy and Kaylie in turn. The girls had been best friends since middle school, and Claire felt like a second mother to Kaylie. The two girls were the exact opposites in size and looks. While Mandy was tall and lean with chestnut brown hair cut into a sensible bob and had dark blue eyes, Kaylie was shorter and petite with long, straight, blond hair and light blue eyes. But their personalities had always meshed well and they had been the best of friends for so long that they might as well have been sisters.
Claire looked around the bridal boutique with raised brows. "Is it just us or will Janice be joining us?" she asked Mandy. Janice Fisher was Mandy's soon to be mother-in-law.
"Janice said she'd rather be pleasantly surprised on the day of the wedding," Mandy replied with a sarcastic emphasis on the word pleasantly. She shrugged. "So, yes, it's just us."
Claire nodded, but what she really wanted to do was say something scathing about Janice. She held her tongue instead. While Mandy might have to occasionally put up with her in-laws at family events, she wasn't marrying them. Mandy was marrying Craig, and he was a wonderful young man. Trying to sound generous, Claire offered, "I suppose it isn't as much fun being the mother of the groom instead of the bride. She probably feels left out no matter how many things we invite her to. Don't give it much thought."
Mandy nodded. Just then the owner of the shop, Marissa, came swooping down upon them in a whirl of energy, gave hugs all around, and then led the small group to the mirrored dressing rooms so Mandy and Kaylie could try on their dresses.
Kaylie went first so they could save the most anticipated dress for last. The strapless, aquamarine, short satin dress she'd chosen fit her to a tee and was the perfect color for a beach wedding. After the three women exclaimed admiration for the dress, it was Mandy's turn to try on her wedding gown. Marissa went in the room with Mandy to help her slip into the dress while Claire and Kaylie waited excitedly out in the mirrored display area.
Finally, Marissa came out through the curtain with a grin on her face and her hands clasped tightly in front of her as if in silent applause. "Here she is," Marissa announced. "The future Mrs. Craig Fisher."
Mandy swept through the curtain in a vision of satin, lace, and ruffles amidst gasps from Claire and Kaylie. She glided over to the pedestal in front of the three-way mirror and stepped up on it, then turned to face her mother with a small smile on her face.
Claire stood with her hands over her mouth, taken aback at the sight of the lovely princess standing before her. She had seen the dress on Mandy countless times, before alterations and without the veil and shoes. But today, with the entire ensemble on, her Mandy, her little girl now grown up, was a beautiful sight to behold.
"Well, Mom? What do you think?" Mandy asked.
"It's absolutely breathtaking," Claire said. "It's just… perfect." And it was. Mandy had chosen a gown that was both simple, yet elegant, and that suited her no-nonsense personality. It was a creamy white strapless dress fitted at the bust and waist then billowing out to a full skirt with a small, flowing train. The skirt was made up of layers of short ruffles which gave it a frothy look, like the foam on the ocean as the waves hit the beach. The veil hung over Mandy's bare shoulders and was trimmed in a delicate application of beads. It was a sophisticated, beautiful gown and was perfect for a ceremony on a sandy beach—Mandy's dream wedding. Looking at her normally serious daughter dressed like an angel in white, Claire suddenly wondered where the years had gone. Twenty-four years. Years of smiles, laughter, and tears. Years of baby dolls, trikes, kissing booboos, and starting Kindergarten. Those years had morphed into prom dresses, shaggy boyfriends, and college dorm rooms. A first apartment, a first job, and then engagement. And now, after everything, marriage. Time had passed too quickly.
"It's gorgeous!" Kaylie exclaimed after she finally found her voice. "You look like a princess."
Mandy smiled at Kaylie, and then her mother. "This is it," she said. "In three days we'll be off to the Caribbean and within the week, I'll be married. It's incredible, isn't it?"
Claire nodded, afraid to speak in case she choked on the tears she was holding back.
"I can't wait until Dad sees my dress. Won't he be surprised?" Mandy asked.
All the delightful memories that had been embracing Claire that very moment dropped to the floor at the mention of Mandy's father. Claire had been actively trying to forget that one detail—Jim, and his new, younger wife, would be at the wedding, too.
The wedding gown was carefully bagged as was Kaylie's dress and all the accessories. Claire paid the balance along with buying all the extras like a box to store the dress in after the wedding. The three women waved goodbye to Marissa and walked out into the gloomy day in the fading, late afternoon light.
Kaylie hugged Claire and Mandy goodbye and ran off to her little sports car, carefully avoiding the larger of the muddy puddles in the parking lot. Claire helped Mandy to her car where they carefully hung the bagged gown on the hook in the back seat and laid out all the other purchases.
"So, have you heard from your father lately?" Claire asked, trying to sound indifferent, but failing miserably. Please say he isn't coming and bringing that annoying wife of his. Please, please, please.
Mandy stared at her mother a moment before answering. "I just talked to him this morning. And yes, he's still planning on coming, Mom. Dad wouldn't miss my wedding day." Mandy threw her mother a sly grin. "Remember, I can read your mind."
Claire had the good grace to look sheepish. Jim wouldn't miss his daughter's wedding, she knew that better than anyone. But it didn't stop Claire from wishing she didn't have to spend an entire week on an island with her ex-husband and the woman he'd left her for.
Mandy leaned forward and pulled Claire into a hug. "I know this isn't going to be easy, Mom, but I couldn't get married without both of you there. Please, for my sake, try to make it work?"
Claire hugged her daughter tightly before slowly pulling away. "Of course, I'll make it work. I'm always polite to him and that woman. I didn't say one mean thing to her or him at the engagement party, remember?" I wanted to spill red wine all over her skimpy, tight yellow dress, but I refrained.
Mandy rewarded Claire with one of her serious stares, the kind that reminded Claire so much of her ex-husband. Mandy had Jim's thick, wavy, chestnut brown hair and his deep blue eyes, a lethal combination that attracted people easily. But where her father had an outgoing, easy nature about him, always ready with a rakish grin, Mandy was more serious and reserved, like her mother. Yet, Claire couldn't help but always be reminded of Jim every time she looked at her daughter.
"Mom, that woman has a name. It's Diane. And I know you're trying. It's just for a week. I promise you will barely even see them while we're there."
Claire nodded, realizing that this was probably true. After all, even though it was a small island, there were plenty of places she could be that he wasn't. And miles of beach. She looked forward to walking a lot on the warm beaches and enjoying the sun and ocean breezes.
"It's too bad Steven isn't coming with you," Mandy said, interrupting Claire's thoughts. "You're going to be the only person there who isn't part of a couple."
Claire bit her lip. Yes, it would have been nice to have had someone along to share the romantic trip with, but she wasn't going to let that ruin her good time. There were plenty of other people she loved coming along like her brother, Glen, and sister-in-law, Lisa, Kaylie, the best man's wife Angela, and of course Mandy. Claire would have plenty of fun enjoying the entire wedding party despite Jim being there.
"Earth to Mom," Mandy said, waving her hand in front of Claire's face.
Claire snapped out of her stupor. "Sorry. I was just thinking how much fun we'll all have on the island, even though Steven won't be along." She looked at her watch. "Speaking of which, I'd better get going or I'll be late. I'm meeting Steven for dinner tonight and I have to go back to the shop first, then home to change."
Mandy drove Claire over to the boutique and they hugged goodbye. The next time they'd see each other would be at the airport on Monday. They both had plenty to do before taking off for an entire week.
I hope you enjoyed this first chapter. Destination Wedding will be available soon on Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, and in paperback.