Annie glared at the back of the man sitting in the church pew a few rows ahead, to the left. Once, those broad shoulders had left her breathless. Oh, she was breathless all right, but it was indignation that had her seething with anger now. The organist started playing and the little flower girl next to Annie looked up at her.
Annie nodded and forced a smile. "You're going to be fine," she whispered and gave her a little push. She watched Paige step carefully through the open doors and start her procession down the nave. Paige made it past Chad-of-the-broad-shoulders and kept going. Annie blew out a deep breath. She smoothed her velvet dress and picked up the bouquet of poinsettias. She could do this. She was not going to let that jerk spoil this for her. She glanced back at the pastor's office. On the threshold, Julie, Annie's best friend, was waiting, a beaming vision in white. Annie grinned at her and then stepped in the wake of the flower girl.
She held her breath until she was past Chad, and kept walking. Step, hold, step, hold... She kept her eyes fixed at the front of the church. Seeing Pastor Ewing up ahead, standing in her father's usual place, was just too disconcerting, so she turned her sights on the groom and his best man. Mac was standing with his back to her, determined, Annie knew, not to look back until Julie was at his side. His brother, Trey, grinned at Annie and gave her a discrete thumbs-up. She breathed again.
When she reached the front, Annie handed her bouquet to Julie's mom and picked up Pete, Julie's son. She hoisted him on her hip, unable to suppress a grin at the one-year-old's adorable mini tuxedo, and took her place as maid of honor. She could feel the congregation's silent "aww" of delight as people realized Pete was going to be as much part of this wedding as the bride and groom. By the time Julie and Mac said their vows, surrounded by their family and best friends, everyone was a little teary-eyed.
"Well, that was tacky," Chad muttered from behind her as everyone trailed out of the blue-painted church and headed to the VFW hall for the reception. Annie spun around, the glorious balloon of joy in her heart popping.
"What?" she asked incredulously.
"Bringing baby at the altar with them. Seriously?" Chad shook his head, a bewildered sneer on his face.
Annie's jaw dropped. She almost started to explain that Pete was Julie's son from her first marriage, but then stopped herself. She knew she'd explained this to him before, and in any case, Chad didn't deserve an explanation. He'd been nothing but snide since he'd arrived in Green Pines.
Annie had invited him to spend the weekend at her parents' house. "I guess you can't expect a pastor to be able to repaint his house," had been his first comment as he got out of his Porsche in the driveway. The Larsen's living room was a "quaint piece of Americana." When he'd spent the evening working over his laptop, instead of hanging out with her in front of the open fire, it had been the Wi-Fi connection that wasn't fast enough for his liking. "Even that's slow in a town this size, I guess." The water pressure didn't measure up to his own several-thousand-dollar showerhead, did it? Over breakfast, it was all about how he hadn't been able to sleep at night, it was just too quiet—no wonder people out in the hicks were brain dead and how had Annie ever managed to get enough mental stimulation get into college?
By that point, Annie had been ready to throw him out of the house. But the bride's wedding party had rung the doorbell right then, forestalling the full-blown fight she was itching for. Brides usually came to the Larsens' to get ready, since the rectory was next to the church with a paved, covered walkway between the two.
"Go do some work and stay out of our way," she’d ordered, resigned to having to deal with him later.
Later had just arrived.
She pursed her lips, shaking her head, trying to find the right spark to light a screaming match. Then, all of a sudden, all the fight in her evaporated. He wasn't worth a fight, she realized. Chad was smiling at her now, a slow, lazy smile with those full lips, completely oblivious that she might resent his just having insulted her best friend. His thick blond hair was brushed back from his forehead. His blue eyes, she noticed, had trailed down to her cleavage. She pulled her faux-fur jacket closed. She looked at this man in his Armani suit, so handsome that for months she had thrown all caution and good sense to the wind, and wondered what had gotten into her.
"You know, Chad, I think you better go home," she said evenly.
"What, and miss the reception? Don't be silly, who would want to miss the fascinating anthropological experience of a trailer-trash wedding?" he laughed, slipping his arm around her waist as he started to lead her to his car.
Annie's hand whipped across the air and slapped him before she could even think about it. Chad took a step back, stunned.
"What was that?"
"That was me telling you to go home, Chad. Home as in back to Chicago. I don't want you here. In fact, I don't want you anywhere. Get your stuff from your room and leave. Now, please. I'll wait for you here to wave you off."
Annie kept up her tough façade as the inevitable consequence of what she'd just done dawned on her. Sure enough, Chad didn't even argue.
"You're fired," he spat as he stomped toward her house.
At least she'd enjoyed the reception, Annie thought as she let herself into the house later that night and was hit with the lingering smell of his aftershave. How had she never noticed before that even the man's aftershave had to overshadow everyone else? She eased open one of the windows in the living room, struggling a bit with the storm window.
She slipped off the faux-fur jacket, enjoying the luxurious feel of it. It had been a wonderful, Christmassy wedding. The whole community had shown up to celebrate, and Annie would never have to live with the embarrassment that having had Chad there could have caused. She was glad for that. And so happy that her best friend had found her second chance. Annie hugged the jacket to her in the empty room and couldn't help but wonder when she'd get finally her first one.
Don't miss it, in the September 27, 2016 release, Sweet Christmas Kisses 3. You're invited to our launch party!
Her Green Pines sweet romances, Reclaiming Home and Sweet Blizzard are available on Amazon and Amazon.uk.
You can find her on her website,www.miloukoenings.com, on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram.