The irony of being a never-married wedding planner isn’t lost on forty-three-year-old Sarah. But that doesn’t mean the free-spirited single mom hasn’t known love–and, most recently, heartbreak. And while the butter- cream sweetness of wedding rituals strikes her as somewhat silly, work is a welcome distraction–as are her friends-turned-colleagues: pragmatic Elaine, dramatic Lily, and newly in love Jo. Yet Sarah is about to get even more distracted by a visitor from her past, one who holds the key to a mystery that has shadowed her life. But to face the truth, she’ll need a little help from her friends–old and new.
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Three Times a Charm
By Jean Stone
Random HouseJean Stone
All right reserved.
It was absurd, Sarah knew, that she, of all people, was caught up in the business of planning second weddings. She had turned forty-three last fall and had never had a wedding of her own (not even a first), had never wanted one. Not to mention that she'd just said good-bye to the man with whom she'd lived for many years.
It was absurd, this I-do, 'til-death-do-us-part stuff.
"Cream puff?" It was Lily, offering a miniconfection topped with frosty icing and silver sprinkles in keeping with the theme of the New Year's Eve glitzy wedding-white and silver, snow and ice.
Sarah shook her head. "I want to get home."
Lily didn't ask why on earth Sarah would want to; she didn't mention that no one was waiting there. Instead, she popped the cream puff into her mouth and said, "This was great. We really pulled it off."
Glancing around the ballroom of the eighteenth-century Stone Castle, hearing remnants of the last-to-leave people-chatter, catching sight of high-heeled shoes abandoned near the dance floor and midnight-buffet dishes scattered across the tabletops, Sarah had to agree that, yes, they'd pulled it off. The mismatched, former college roommates had orchestrated quite a spectacle disguised as a second wedding for media mogul John Benson and his lovely wife, Irene. It hadn't mattered that the firsttime the Bensons were married it had been to each other. What mattered were the cameras and the coverage and the bling of it all. What mattered was that Second Chances, the wedding-planning business for second-time brides, had now made it to the big time, hip-hip-hooray for them.
"Our phones will ring nonstop," Lily giggled, waving her shimmering chiffon scarf as if it were a magic wand. "Oh, this is so divine. It's just as I imagined."
Divine? Sarah considered Lily's drama-queen description. Perhaps the wedding had been that for her. From the tiniest of cream puffs to the chorus of fireworks, they'd planned every detail together, sometimes working as a single, enmeshed unit, other times like clawing, mongrel cats. Their goal had been the same: to create an extravagant second wedding that the world would notice, an event that would put Second Chances on the wedding-planning map.
Perhaps, for Lily, that had been divine. For Jo, it had surely been a business deal. For Elaine, a minor miracle. For Sarah, it had been a job, a break from her silver-jewelry-making, from the free-form earrings and the shining hair clips and the thick cuff bracelets that accessorized her days, the company of her friends a welcome distraction from the recent unsettledness that now tarnished her life.
"Excuse me, are you a guest?" A group of wilted-haired, wrinkle-shirted cable-TV people had converged around them; a microphone was aimed at Sarah's mouth. The fact that she was the tallest of the former roommates often mistakenly conveyed that she was the one in charge.
She sighed. She hoped this was a final, annoying ploy for one last, delicious, Benson-wedding morsel for the late, late news. "Sorry," she said, "I'm just the hired help."
Lily stepped out from Sarah's shadow. A rush of media, after all, had also been part of the public-relations plan. "Lily Beckwith," Lily chirped, her delicate hand extended with the practiced elegance of a lady used to frenzied spin. "I was married to Reginald Beckwith-the Third-remember him?" She withdrew her hand and gently cupped the reporter's elbow. "Let me help you find a yummy story." With a quick, false-eyelashed wink at Sarah, Lily led the troupe of cameras and reporters through the maze of leftovers across the ballroom floor.
No, Sarah thought, she would not call this divine.
Divine would be if she went home tonight and found Jason and their twelve-year-old son, Burch, waiting for her by the fireplace, telling her they both decided they'd rather stay sequestered with her in the safety of West Hope in the Berkshires instead of living in New York City. They hadn't broken up-not exactly. But Jason's accelerated pursuit of the musical spotlight was not what Sarah wanted for herself. She didn't want her solitary happiness to give way to the kind of farcical existence that she'd witnessed that night at the Benson wedding.
Unfortunately, Jason did not feel the same. "I'm forty-five," he'd complained a month ago. "I'm tired of being on the road. But I need to be in the city, Sarah. Singing is my life."
They hadn't fought about it; they loved each other, didn't they? But they knew each other's truths: He would not survive in West Hope, and she would not survive the noise, the crowds, the clutter of the city, where she would not be free to wander in the forest and gather wild herbs, to sit outside at night and be one with the stars. She would not be at peace; she'd become one of them, an ordinary member of the urban flock of sheep. The remnants of her heritage would slowly dissipate.
So, after more than fifteen years together, they'd decided on a trial separation. She only wished that Burch had not chosen to live his father's life instead of hers. A true Cherokee would have stayed with his mother's clan, if she'd had a clan.
She plucked her truck keys from her purse and readjusted the handmade silver clip that held up her long, black hair. She caught Lily's eye and waved. "Happy New Year," she called out. "See you tomorrow." The main event was over, but this was a weekend celebration; tomorrow the women of Second Chances would continue to feed and entertain the Benson's famous guests.
"Happy New Year, my darling friend," Lily sang, her voice dancing across the room, the theatrics quite in keeping with the presence of the cameras. "Here's to a grand and glorious year."
Yes, Sarah thought, with another, halfhearted wave, here's to a grand and glorious year that I'll be starting off alone.
Two hundred miles away, in a sprawling co-op on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Laura Carrington squinted at the television. She had been sipping tea, watching the ball drop in Times Square. But she was not tired, so after the raucous ritual she'd kept the picture on to watch the late, late news, the clips of revelers from New York to the West Coast, where it still was last year, as if L.A. were stuck in a time warp on an old Hollywood set.
Though her glamour days were over long ago, Laura watched with interest: The glitter, the gowns, the make-believe evoked the same nonsense today as it had back then.
And then, she saw her.
At first it didn't register. But as the dark-haired woman in the crowded image on the screen turned from the camera's lens, a silver hair clip flashed against the light. Laura blinked. She blinked again. The off-camera reporter mentioned something about a wedding, John Benson's New Year's wedding, somewhere in the Berkshires.
And then Laura knew. Her hand slow-motioned to her mouth. Her teacup slid down the hand-woven blanket tucked around her legs and tumbled to the floor.
She had seen the silver hair clip. The clip that matched the one that sat atop her bureau in the other room.
I have a room upstairs," Andrew said to Jo, as they stood beneath the staircase at the far end of the ballroom.
She deflected her reluctance and accepted his embrace, felt his body working closer, felt his warmth press eagerly against her silver sheath. She'd known that it would come to this when she had gone to him, after the wedding vows were vowed and the fireworks had burst and the guests had danced and danced and drifted to quiet corners, then away. Jo had known that it would come to this and yet . . . and yet . . .
"I thought the rooms had been reserved for wedding guests," she said. Talking was a technique in procrastination, an art she'd mastered well over the years, an adverse side effect of too much history with Brian. But Andrew isn't Brian, she now whispered to herself. Andrew isn't Brian. This time it will be different.
"I know the wedding planners," Andrew softly said, his breath so close to hers that she could taste its sweetness.
"And so you pulled some strings. You're a very clever man, aren't you?"
He answered her with kisses, on her cheeks, her eyes, her forehead.
She smiled; how could she not? "Andrew," she said, "whatever will I do with you?"
With a single finger he outlined her lips. Then he leaned down and kissed her mouth, once, then twice, then once again.
"Andrew," she said again. The problem wasn't that she hadn't been with other men except for Brian. The problem was that with the others she hadn't felt the tingle that told her it was special, it was real. The problem was, she felt it now, and it felt strange and scary and exciting all at once.
Without a word he took her hand. His soft eyes lingered on her, then he led her up the stone stairs to a lone arched wooden door that had a long, wrought-iron handle.
"I feel like Cinderella," she said, and he just smiled.
He reached into the pocket of his white tuxedo and removed a black skeleton key. With one swift motion, he unlocked the door, then turned and scooped Jo from her feet.
She caught her breath. She wanted to laugh, to ask wasn't this silly, two middle-aged adults acting like teenagers in lusty love? She wanted to delay the possibilities again, but Andrew's feelings might be hurt. She swallowed back her fears and let him carry her into the room, close the door behind them, then lower her onto a high-backed velvet chair. The mate to the chair sat next to her, a small, round table in between. A crystal bowl was there, cupping strawberries that had been dipped in chocolate; beside the bowl were two wineglasses and an unopened bottle chilling in a golden bucket. The romantic, still-life set design faced a massive fireplace. The flames snapped and cracked and glowed, like the sparks inside her now.
While Andrew tended the fire, she glanced around the room at antique lace draperies tied back with thick gold cords, at the regal, four-poster bed, which stood so high that footstools had been placed on either side.
"Andrew," she said, because it was so beautiful and he had gone to so much effort. "If John and Irene see this, they'll think we commandeered the bridal suite." She didn't think she was procrastinating now; she was merely nervous. Ordinary, first-time-with-this-man nervous.
With a large saber-looking poker, Andrew turned another log.
Was he nervous too?
And then he said, "I think John and Irene would be delighted."
That was when Jo realized how vulnerable both men and women were, that middle age did not provide a cushion for the nuances-for the nuisances-of emotion. She stood up and went to him, slipping her arms around his waist. He turned and held her close again, nuzzling his face into her hair.
Okay, she thought. I am ready for this. She was ready to be loved again. To be loved by Andrew. There were no secrets between them now, no reason to be afraid, nothing to prevent them from being together.
Then she thought about his daughter.
"What about Cassie?" she asked. "Shouldn't you take her home?" Cassie was eleven, too young to be left on her own all night. John and Irene were her godparents, so Cassie had been at the wedding. She'd taken on the task of telling anyone who asked that her father was on assignment and that was why he wasn't there as John's best man. Most folks assumed that meant Andrew was out of the country, because traveling as a journalist was how he'd once made his living and his name. Cassie did not explain that he was really in the kitchen of the Stone Castle, hiding from the guests and the paparazzi who might recognize Andrew David Kennedy and might make a connection between the women of Second Chances and his anonymous "Real Women" column in John's Buzz magazine.
Even though Andrew had come clean to the women, he'd said that he should remain undercover to keep stray gossip to a dull, disinterested roar. The focus, after all, needed to be on the wedding and, most importantly, on the wedding planners and the first-class job they'd done.
Andrew kissed Jo's neck. "Mrs. Connor came to get her. I told her I'd be staying late."
"Did she ask why?" Cassie might only be eleven, but she was a precocious child, intuitive and sharp.
"She didn't ask. But I wouldn't have lied."
There had been enough lies, Jo agreed. But that was over now. She leaned back into Andrew. She watched the dancing fire, not wanting it to end.
"I love you, Jo," Andrew said quietly. "I've loved you from the day I first saw you at Second Chances."
She turned to him again. She smiled and studied his face, his dimpled cheek, his steady eyes, his tawny hair that always seemed in need of combing. "I need to do this slowly," she replied.
He bent down and lifted her from her feet again. He carried her to the high, four-poster bed, where he lay her among the lace-covered pillows. Then Jo watched as he unknotted the tie of his tuxedo and removed the studs of the pleated shirt. Then he was beside her, touching her with gentleness, sliding one strap off her shoulder, leaning down to kiss the swell of her aching breast.
And the strawberries dipped in chocolate and the wineglasses on the table sat in silence while Jo reminded herself that this was Andrew and the past was done and she could trust him, she could trust him.
Sarah had been raised in the hills of northern California, on a little-known reservation. The Cherokee Nation, after all, had mostly stayed in Oklahoma, where its people had been driven by the federal government in the 1800s. It had been a sad, ill-fated era from which a few-Sarah's ancestors included-had been lucky to escape. They had not embraced the treaty and its limitations; they had kept moving west.
Sarah's grandmother-Glisi was the word in Cherokee-said that same, determined, renegade spirit ran deep through Sarah's blood.
She missed her grandmother, the mother of her father. She missed the folklore and traditions that Glisi always shared, that Sarah had passed along to Burch, that Burch might miss now too. She missed looking up at the stars with her grandmother and wondering which one held the spirit of her mother.
Excerpted from Three Times a Charm by Jean Stone Excerpted by permission.
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