After This Night (Seductive Nights #2)(12)


by Lauren Blakely

“We’re closed now. Open again in an hour,” Gayle said. “Someone will be here then to cut your hair.”

“I’d really like one now,” he said, then scrunched up his nose, squeezed shut his eyes, and covered his face with a hand as he sneezed so loudly it sounded like a honk. His forehead was sweaty, and he looked pale.

“I’m sure you do, sweetie, and ordinarily I’d open right up for you,” she said in her best calm voice as she dipped a hand into her purse. She quickly found a tissue, and gave it to Skunk. He took it and muttered a thanks. “But I need to get some coffee in me, and if I don’t my hands might be unsteady. So why don’t you come back and someone else can take care of you then?”

He blew his nose, then rubbed the tissue across it. His eyes looked red and watery. “Or, maybe go home, take a hot bath and have some tea and come back tomorrow? You might be getting a nasty cold, honey.”

“I think I have the flu,” he said.

“Here.” She reached in her pocket for a slip of paper and handed that to him. “A twenty percent off coupon, just for you. For when you’re feeling better. You go get in bed and take care of that flu.”

Skunk relented, nodding. “Thank you. I’ll be back.”

He lumbered away, and Julia had a sinking feel that I’ll be back referred to something other than where he’d be an hour from now.

They were circling her, trying to trip her up however they could.

Charlie had sent this message—his sick way of letting her know he’d uncovered another soft spot of hers in her friendship with her stylist. His subtle, or not-so-subtle way of reminding her that he had no mercy. He was willing to do whatever it took to get his money by his deadline.

The deadline was looming ever closer.

* * *

Julia pet her sister’s dog over and over, as if the animal might have a calming effect. Dogs sometimes did that, right? Settled nerves and made people happier. She needed some of that right now, so she sat on the edge of the antique white couch stroking Ms. Pac-Man’s soft fur, hoping it would turn these jitters inside her belly into a thing of the past.

She wasn’t even the one walking down the aisle. She was the damn maid-of-honor and she was supposed to reassure the bride. But McKenna was ready, eager, and not a wink nervous, while all Julia could think about was the ticking clock. She’d texted Gayle a few times, ostensibly about her hair, but really to make sure her stylist was fine. Gayle was getting ready for an Arcade Fire concert, she’d said, so all was well.

Still, Julia couldn’t help feeling as if someone was watching her. Waiting for her. Poised to take her down.

Focus on the bride.

Decked out in a vintage-style tea-length dress, McKenna applied her lip gloss then twirled once in front of the antique, gilded mirror in her suite at the swank Golden Gate Club in the Presidio, a coveted venue for weddings with its view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“You look so beautiful, and this dress is so completely you,” Julia said, even though she’d seen it many times. But that was her job—to shower the bride with extravagant compliments on her wedding day. It would also force her mind off the heightened state of panic inside her body.

“You’re next, Jules,” she said, and Julia scoffed.

She didn’t even know how to respond. The notion of her being married was so foreign, her sister might as well be talking about orbiting Saturn right now. “Let’s get you down the aisle,” she said.

Julia washed her hands one final time. Yes, Ms. Pac-Man had had a pre-wedding bath, but even so she didn’t want scent of a pooch on her as she held a bouquet. She grabbed her daisies, the perfect flowers for McKenna’s sunny disposition, and held open the door for the other bridesmaids: McKenna’s good friends Hayden and Erin, and Chris’s sister, Jill, who had flown out from New York for the weekend, taking two days off from her starring role in the musical Crash the Moon.

They headed to the expansive grounds, across the rolling green hills, to the bluff overlooking the water. The waves lolled peacefully against the shore in the distance, and the afternoon sun warmed them. The weather gods were on their side today—the sky was a crystal blue, and there was no wind. A rare blessing in this windiest of cities, and Julia was grateful.

White chairs were spread across the lawn, and their friends and family were there. Julia spotted Davis in the second row, and instantly her thoughts flicked to Clay. The two men were best friends, and she found herself wondering if her name had ever come up in their conversations.

The music began and the other bridesmaids walked down the white runner spread out on the lawn. Julia turned to McKenna and whispered in her ear. “I love you. I’m so happy for you,” she said, then she squeezed her hand.

“I love you too,” McKenna said, and her voice threatened to break. Julia reached out, and gently wiped the start of a happy tear from her sister’s eye. “Don’t ruin your mascara.”

“I won’t.”

Julia took her turn down the runner, thrilled to finally see this day arrive. Though it hadn’t been a lengthy engagement—in fact it had been markedly short, clocking in at two mere months—this was a day that she’d longed to see. Nearly two years ago, the man McKenna had been involved with dumped her via voicemail twenty-four hours before their wedding, leaving her with a houseful of mixers, pasta makers and place settings she’d never use. Her sister had been devastated. Chris wasn’t like that, not in the least, but Julia had asked a few days ago if she’d had any lingering worries.

“You nervous at all now that it’s so close?”

“Nope. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life,” McKenna had said.

She looked it, too, radiant in her joy today.

When Julia reached the raised stage, her throat hitched, and a tear slipped down her cheek as she turned to watch McKenna walk down the aisle. She delighted at the song that filled the air. McKenna hadn’t picked Pachelbel’s Canon or the wedding march. She’d chosen hers and Chris’s song—Can’t Help Falling in Love.

That was the best kind of love, wasn’t it? The kind where the love was its own entity, a living, breathing presence between two people, demanding to be felt. A life force of its own. That’s what her sister and Chris had, and her heart soared with happiness that McKenna had found the one.