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The Maid of Honor: Lovers in Lockdown

Shawntelle Madison

 

Chapter One

 

4½ hours until ceremony

Doomed WeddingThis wedding was doomed. Unless, of course, Renata Underwood found a way to close the two-inch gap in her maid-of-honor dress. “This side zipper isn’t going up any further,” her mom whispered. Even with another hard upward yank, the zipper on the light-blue strapless gown refused to budge. A trucker could probably haul a windmill through the gaping hole in that sucker.

Renata shot a forced smile across the room at the bride, her sister Tessa, to pretend there wasn’t a problem. The kind of problem where Renata was about to flash her Victoria’s Secret lingerie to all their family and friends. Bad enough there were witnesses in the dressing room: her mom, the makeup artist, and worst of all, the bride.

Renata turned, angling her mom to block Tessa’s view.

But the bride narrowed her hazel eyes suspiciously. She patted her dark brown hair. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing!” Renata and her mom said at the same time.

“Just adjusting her dress,” Mom chirped. “Everything today will go perfectly.”

Was she saying that for Tessa’s benefit or Renata’s?

In a few hours, Renata would be expected to fulfill her role as the maid of honor—walking down the aisle for her sister—wearing a dress. And it had to be this dress, because Renata didn’t have a backup in the garment bag. But wasn’t that just her luck? The whole week had been disastrous, complete with missing car keys, corrupted work files, and a bad hair stylist who left her long brown hair crunchy instead of curly. The only bit of good news was a job offer from a banking company in Salt Lake City. The perfect news to share with family—but not on her sister’s wedding day. No, Renata planned to show up with her chin in the air and a radiating, healthy air of optimism. After a phone call last night during which her sister had confessed her doubts about marrying Graham, Renata refused to mention her upcoming move or let her sister down, especially with the bride so stressed about the wedding.

Today was gonna be freakin’ perfect.

“Suck in!” Renata’s mom hissed. “Aren’t you a size six?”

Without answering the question, she tried to shrink her waistline and failed as her mom jerked upwards again. “My rib cage isn’t going in any further. What about some Spanx?”

Mom peeked behind her to make sure Tessa remained unaware of their covert actions. “What did you eat since the last fitting?”

A bunch of lunch meetings for her job as a comptroller at a local corporation came to mind. A few desserts might’ve been ordered. Or a lot of desserts. But there was nothing to be done about that now. “Just tell me how bad it looks?” Renata asked quietly, ignoring her mom’s question. Again.

“It looks like you had a few too many donuts at the office,” Mom said.

“I’ll have you know, I have a membership at the gym,” Renata grumbled.

“Then the equipment you used was broken, honey,” Mom said, adding a safety pin under the zipper head to keep it from falling farther down.

Way to be supportive, Mom. “So what do we do—”

“What’s wrong with you, Renata?” After the makeup lady finished her eyeliner, Tessa giggled and glanced at her sister. “I haven’t seen that expression since you were in fifth grade and gorged yourself on half a box of Fruit Loops.”

“That was a damn good bowl. Totally worth the emergency room trip.” Their mom draped a police-tape-yellow pashmina over Renata’s shoulders to hide the gap. Yeah, the clashing shawl really screamed high fashion. But it was better than nothing.

“Everything’s fine, sweetheart,” mom chirped. “Renata’s heading out for coffee. Do you want some?”

“A hot cup sounds so good about now!” Tessa said. It was only an hour or so until lunchtime, but Tessa drank coffee as often as Renata did.

“Find the wedding planner and see if she has a seamstress on speed dial,” mom whispered, half shoving Renata out the door. And Renata intended to do just that. After all, seeing her sister so hopeful and beautiful fed her determination.

By the time she made her way down the hall, the dress strained against the trapped zipper. If she weren’t careful she’d give half the Colorado mountainside an eyeful. Her phone buzzed inside her purse—quite the surprise since the reception here sucked. She grabbed her bustline with one hand and answered the phone with the other.

“Hey, Renata,” said her best friend, and she smiled at his smooth voice. Boy, did she have a tale to tell.

“Max! Are you here at Briarwood yet? Have you seen the wedding planner?”

“Not recently.”

Renata’s best-friend radar started pinging. For some reason, Max didn’t sound like his cheerful self. They chatted all the time about random stuff—from the loco career-bent intern at her job to fantasy baseball trash talk. If her best friend had something digging under his skin she usually could tell. And for a moment, she forgot all about her dress disaster. “What’s up? Is everything okay?”

She heard some sounds, like a parking lot in the background. She could imagine him standing in middle of the lot running his hands through his dark blond hair. “I’ve got the kind of problem a wedding officiant shouldn’t have.”

Renata’s imagination went a little wild. Caught with strippers? Handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser? Nah. Max was too straightlaced for any of that. A part of her still snickered at the idea of her best friend serving as the officiant at her sister’s wedding, but Max was the most heartfelt person she and Tessa knew, so it made sense. Max wasn’t a minister, but he’d do a good job. He was probably taking that job a bit too seriously. “What kind of problem?”

“It’s big.”

“How big?” Was it similar to her growing problem? The strain on her dress had spread into a tiny hole where the fabric attached to the zipper.

He let out a tortured sigh. “I lost Tessa and Graham’s wedding vows.”

***

Doomed WeddingWhy couldn’t he find the perfect words to say to the woman he loved? Max Houston thought. His best friend.

“Renata, I’ve fallen in love with you and I don’t know how to say it,” he whispered. He opened his black jacket and glanced at the wedding vows in his pocket. There had to be a better way than cornering her at her sister’s wedding. Max Houston never lost anything—except maybe girls he wanted to date, when they got bored with him being Mr. Responsible. He constantly told his engineering students about integrity both in their work and the spoken word.

Max wasn’t doing too well on the spoken word part.

While he waited for Renata to show up, he walked through the parking lot again.

Dread filled him. Last night he’d picked up the phone several times, but eventually gave up. All that changed when he got a text message last night that she had good news about a new job. Nothing specific, but he had a feeling she’d gotten the job she interviewed for a few weeks ago. An out-of-state opportunity. Before he went to bed he swore he’d confront Renata at the wedding and tell her how he felt.

The plan was so simple. Get her alone and talk.

He regretted lying to her, but if he didn’t say something today he might never get another chance with her leaving the state.

When Renata walked through the foyer toward him, he tried not to stare at her too long. Wow, she looked great . . . except for a crazy yellow shawl that made her look jaundiced. She offered him a reassuring smile, but that didn’t stop the quiver of anticipation up his back. Over the years they’d always been good friends. He laughed at her bad jokes and she even laughed at his. Fostering their friendship was just easy. Yet, somehow, during the last Rockies watching party they attended together, one moment alone between them had left him questioning their friendship and wondering if he had feelings for her.

How many gatherings had they attended together? Too many to count. How could one moment change everything? All it took was one look at her while she jumped to cheer for a double home run and came down in his arms. The team kind of sucked so they didn’t celebrate often, but the moment she glanced at him with that mischievous grin of hers he sucked in his breath. “Why can’t we feel like this all the time?” she’d asked.

She was referring to the game, but to him there was so much more.

Feelings aside, he wondered if the upcoming wedding had gone to her head. Her shoulder-length curly brown hair, which she usually threw into a severe ponytail or upswept do, framed her face in layers as if she’d left her bed not too long ago. He found the casual look surprisingly sexy.

Renata never left her house without the “Full Effect.” That was the term their friends used for it: straightened hair, finished makeup, and all. Now that she was a comptroller for a major company in Denver, the look fit. She traveled often, which left little time for her to meet up with him, but they still talked on the phone all time.

Damn, she looked good this morning. Gorgeous legs peeked out from under a knee-length blue bridesmaid dress. The thin fabric covered familiar curves—her hips not covered by that atrocious scarf. She walked right up to him, a little too close for his comfort, bringing the sweet scent of her lavender perfume. “So where have you checked?”

“I’ve circled Briarwood Manor twice.” The look of concern on her pretty face made him pause. He hated lying to her. He looked away and focused on the tree line and mountains.

“You have a history of not looking too hard in the obvious places.” She tugged his arms to pull him after her. “Let’s check again outside.”

They walked from the entrance toward the garden and gazebo where the wedding would take place. The morning breeze made the walk pleasant. Two groundskeepers mowed the expansive lawn in the distance.

“I’m assuming we’re looking for an envelope or something,” Renata said with a grin.

“Pretty much.” Max approached the small gazebo covered in flowers and glanced around. Renata trailed behind him. All the while he kept thinking, say something. Say something.

“So many of our close friends and family have gotten married,” he said. “How many have we attended over the past five years?” Didn’t all great confessions start with casual conversation?

“At least six. Four out of the six you’ve been my designated date-slash-victim to keep me out of trouble.”

He chuckled. It was never a hardship to be her date, even before he’d realized how badly he wanted her. They both loved to dance until the band played their last note. “How did I miss the other two times?”

“You had a conference in Bucharest for one and got food poisoning the other time.”

He shuddered from the memory. After Renata got back from the wedding in Colorado Springs, she’d brought him a care package of expensive pajamas, warm broth, and the first season of the show Man v. Food. At the time he didn’t find the DVD all that funny. What kind of queasy person would want to watch a bunch of shows about a dude going from restaurant to restaurant to stuff his face full of food?

Only a best friend like Renata would. “This is the best medicine, Max. We’ll be eating lunch like the pros in no time once you get better,” she’d said.

“This is so beautiful.” He turned to see her reach out and touch the gazebo, which had been decorated with vibrant blue flowers.

He should’ve stopped himself, but he plucked a blossom off and tucked it in her soft hair. The thick curls held the flower in check. Her smile widened. “What’s this for?”

“Looks good on you.” Just seeing her like this made it even harder for him. He quickly added, “And we can officially say I didn’t forget to give you something for your birthday next month. C’mon, we need to keep looking.”

Doomed WeddingAs he walked away toward the parking lot he wanted to kick himself. He had absolutely no game whatsoever. If Renata knew what was going on she would’ve given him the “look” and had something smart-ass to say: “If I looked up procrastinator in the dictionary I’d see a picture of you waving at me, Max. Just say something to her! She’s growing gray hair waiting on you, pal.”

He opened his mouth to speak, expecting something eloquent. “That was fruitless,” he remarked. That football pass missed the mark. He glanced around the parking lot, fishing for the right words. Not far from them, a blonde tried to haul a Pepto-Bismol–pink suitcase out of her trunk. A brief distraction while he came up with something. Max immediately strode over to offer a hand. Whoa, that sucker was heavy. Was she hiding a dead body in there?

The woman thanked him, laughing as she tried to pull the suitcase, with its single wobbling wheel, toward the lodge entrance. Part of the bottom scraped against the concrete. “She’s cute.” Renata tapped his elbow. “You should ask her for her number.”

“Why?” Was she seriously trying to play the wingman in a parking lot?

“’Cause she’s probably single. I know her type: lonely road warrior with a somewhat tidy ride, no ring on her finger, and she smiled at you like you were package of discount beef tenderloin at the grocery store.”

He wondered how he could get Renata to look at him that way. He had to say something instead of dwelling on the possibility that she might shoot him down. “I’ll pass.”

“Let’s see if I offer to hook you up again,” she said. But he knew it was an empty threat. She was always doing that, and, truthfully, since the night of the game when they shared that moment, it had started to annoy him. “If you’re not going to do anything to improve your love life, Max, we should go inside because I need to find Julie. I’ve got my own problems.”

“Besides the ugly shawl? You’re not wearing that during the ceremony, are you, Ren?” He knew she hated when he called her that, but that made him want to do it all the more.

Renata groaned. “I had a bit of a wedding wardrobe malfunction.”

“That bites. Can I see?” He was half-joking.

She slapped his arm playfully. “No! It’s embarrassing enough.”

They made their way through the foyer, getting stopped twice by family and friends. Coming inside hadn’t been the best idea.

“Look, don’t worry about the vows,” he said. “Why don’t we go find Julie?” He’d dragged her along long enough. With all the wedding guests walking around, they’d never find enough privacy for him to feel comfortable enough to talk.

“We can do both at the same time.” She paused to pat his arms. “You look so stressed. Don’t worry! We’ll find the vows and Julie has gotta be somewhere around here.”

In an attempt to brighten the mood, Renata trash talked about the local baseball team’s player injury list. “He’s a bum,” she blurted. The subject of her ire, a former ace on the pitching staff, had been on the disabled list for six weeks. “My grandma has a better ERA.”

“Well, how many World Series has your grandmother pitched?”

“Yeah, he pitched in the World Series, but he lost both the games he started and his ERA was above five.”

“Your mother’s ERA is above five.”

She scanned the floor. “The team also needs a stronger second baseman. The last three seasons he’s missed games with that ankle injury. A dude with a bum leg isn’t gonna help them win the pennant.”

“There’s no way—”

A chuckle erupted behind them. They turned to see a smiling elderly couple. They had to be at least eighty years old.

“You two make such a cute couple,” the woman remarked. “How long have you been married?”

“Can’t be for too long, honey,” the man said to his wife. “Nobody’s offended yet.”

Max stuffed his hands in his pockets. He knew how the conversation would progress. He’d witnessed it before when he was with Renata.

“Oh no—” Renata taking a small step away from him. “He’s just my best friend. We’ve been close for years.”

This was where he was supposed to make a joke about their relationship and her quirky habits, maybe talk about how she liked M&M’s cookies without the M&M’s, but his mouth refused to move. He glanced at her, finding it hard not to think about what if.

“You two talk like you’ve been married for a while,” the man said.

“I agree. Your kids would be absolutely adorable!” his wife added.

Renata snorted while Max tried to offer a dry laugh.

“I know most of his secrets and he knows a few of mine. The juicy ones anyway.” Renata jabbed Max in the shoulder. “I don’t think I’ll find a better friend anywhere.” She sighed. “I’ll probably be the maid of honor at his wedding.”

Doomed WeddingHer final statement stabbed him in the gut.

The women continued to gab about making guy-girl friendships work. From a side-glance he noticed the older man gave him a sympathetic look. He tapped Max on the shoulder, leaning in to whisper in his ear. “Twenty-three years of ‘friendship’ before I made my move on my wife, buddy. Don’t wait as long as I did.”

“What are you two whispering about?” the older man’s wife asked as she patted her husband’s arm.

“I told him to make a run for it,” the older gentleman replied. “Pretty women like you two can’t be trusted.”

They all laughed. If he’d had more time, Max would’ve considering asking the pair about their life story. He found it amazing to meet couples like his parents—still together and smiling after many years.

“You two have fun,” the older man said.

The two couples parted. Renata and Max continued their search for Julie through another room, gradually making their way toward the kitchen at the other end of the building.

“How do you feel about this wedding with all this stuff going on?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Somewhat good. I’m hoping nothing else crazy happens. Like some relative who loses their damn mind while I’m officiating.”

“I have some weirdo relatives, but nobody for you to worry about. But the groom’s side . . . I don’t know about that.” The breeze from an open window wafted into the room as she played with a strand of her hair. Her scent–lavender and enticing–played over him, settling into his groin. He wondered what she’d think if she actually peeked into his mind. Would she be shocked to know he liked her? And as so much more than a friend?

After a check down a long corridor, they ventured into the kitchen’s storage area filled with stacks of glasses and plates. Staff darted around them as they raced toward a row of covered waste containers. Renata looked around the garbage cans while he headed into the kitchen.

A lone staff member approached. “Can I help you?”

“Have you seen the wedding planner?” Renata asked the man.

“The last time I saw her she was going down to the wine cellar.”

They headed for a doorway off the kitchen. Max enjoyed the warmth of her hand until she released his to grab her side.

“Slow down a bit,” she said with a laugh. “My dress is held up with love and duct tape at this point.”

From the kitchen they descended down a set of timber stairs. The temperature had cooled considerably. The noise from the kitchen quieted. Even more when they faced a door to what had to be the wine cellar. The space was clean, with a light earthy smell, but he didn’t mind—maybe if Julie wasn’t here he could find the right words to say to Renata.

His heart began to beat faster as they reached the thick cellar door. He paused for a moment, hoping and praying he’d find an empty room. They’d be in and out real fast. He’d say his piece and get what he felt off his chest.

While he opened the door, Renata touched his back so she could lean in to look, too. He ignored her warm palm and walked into the room. Briarwood staff had stacked glass holders, wine bottles, and boxes in the center of the room. Julie was nowhere to be found. Relief filled him.

“I guess we should try somewhere else.” Renata frowned. A curtain of hair fell over her face. His hand came up to sweep the strands aside, but he checked himself with a cough.

“Don’t worry! We’ve got plenty of time to find the wedding planner so we can fix your—what did you call it again?” He grinned mischievously, thinking of the way her dress fit her curves.

“My wedding wardrobe malfunction.”

“You have plenty of time to get that gap closed.”

She took a step toward the door, but he didn’t follow.

“You okay, Max?” She headed for the door, each step pushing him hard to speak.

Don’t throw this chance away, Houston. “Renata, there’s something I have to tell—”

She grabbed the doorknob and turned, but the knob didn’t budge.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“The door is locked.” She got out of the way for him to try.

Oh shit. He tried to open the door and failed. With a groan, he bumped his forehead against the cold wood. He couldn’t hear a single sound outside.

Max cursed under his breath.

“That’s never a good sign,” she said from behind him.

Frustration built as he tried to open the door again. He wanted her alone, but not like this. “We’re locked in.”

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