Grief came in waves, hard and choppy, buffeting and breaking the
heart. Other days the waves were slow and swamping, threatening to
drown the soul.
People --- good, caring people --- claimed time would heal.
Parker hoped they were right, but as she stood on her bedroom
terrace in the late-summer sun, months after the sudden, shocking
deaths of her parents, those capricious waves continued to
She had so much, she reminded herself. Her brother --- and she
didn't know if she'd have survived this grieving time without Del
--- had been a rock to cling to in that wide, wide ocean of shock
and sorrow. Her friends Mac, Emma, Laurel, a part of her life, a
part of her, since childhood. They'd been the glue mending
and holding all the shattered pieces of her world. She had the
constant, unshakable support of their longtime housekeeper, Mrs.
Grady, her island of comfort.
She had her home. The beauty and elegance of the Brown Estate
seemed deeper, sharper to her somehow, knowing she wouldn't see her
parents strolling through the gardens. She'd never again run
downstairs and find her mother laughing in the kitchen with Mrs. G,
or hear her father wheeling a deal in his home office.
Instead of learning to ride those waves, she'd felt herself
being swept deeper and deeper down into the dark.
Time, she'd determined, needed to be used and pushed and
She thought --- hoped --- she'd found a way, not only to use
that time, but to celebrate what her parents had given her, to
unite those gifts with family and friendships.
To be productive, she mused as the first spicy scents of coming
autumn stirred the air. The Browns worked. They built and
they produced and they never, never sat back to laze on
Her parents would have expected her to do no less than those
who'd come before her.
Her friends might think she'd lost her mind, but she'd
researched, calculated, and outlined a solid business plan, a
sturdy model. And with Del's help, a fair and reasonable legal
Time to swim, she told herself.
She simply wouldn't sink.
She walked back into the bedroom, picked up the four thick
packets she'd set on her dresser. One for each of them for the
meeting --- though she hadn't told her friends they were coming to
She paused, took a moment to tie back her glossy brown hair in a
tail, then simply stared into her own eyes, willing a spark to
light in the deep blue.
She could make this work. No, no, they could make this
She just had to convince them first.
Downstairs, she found Mrs. Grady putting the finishing touches
on the meal.
The sturdy woman turned from the stove, gave her a wink.
"Prepared anyway. I'm nervous. Is it silly to be nervous?
They're my closest friends in the world."
"It's a big step you're looking to take, a big one you'll ask
them to take. You'd be foolish if you weren't a bit nervous." She
stepped over, took Parker's face in her hands. "My money's on you.
Go on out. I've gone a little fancy, so you'll have hors d'oeuvres
and wine on the terrace. My girls are all grown up."
She wanted to be, but God, there was a child inside her who
wanted her mom and dad, the comfort, the love, the security.
Outside, she set the packets on a table, then crossed over to
take the wine out of its cooler, pour herself a glass.
Then simply stood, holding the glass, looking out in the
softening light over the gardens to the pretty little pond and the
reflection of the willows mirrored on its surface.
"God! Do I want some of that."
Laurel bolted out, her sunny blond hair brutally short --- a new
look her friend already regretted. She hadn't changed out of her
uniform from her position as dessert chef at an upscale local
Her eyes, bright and blue, rolled as she poured her wine. "Who
knew when I changed my schedule to make our Girl Night we'd get a
last-minute lunch reservation for twenty? The kitchen was a
madhouse all afternoon. Mrs. G's kitchen now…" She let out a
huge groan as she dropped down to sit after hours on her feet.
"It's an oasis of calm that smells like heaven. What's for
"I didn't ask."
"Doesn't matter." Laurel waved it away. "But if Emma and Mac are
late, I'm starting without them." She spotted the stack of packets.
"What's all that?"
"Something that can't start without them. Laurel, do you want to
go back to New York?"
Laurel eyed her over the rim of her glass. "Are you kicking me
"I guess I want to know what you want. If you're satisfied with
how things are. You moved back for me, after the accident, and ---
"I'm taking it a day at a time, and figure I'll figure it out.
Right now, not having a plan's working for me. Okay?"
She broke off as Mac and Emma came out together, laughing.
Emma, she thought, so beautiful with her mass of hair curling
madly, her dark, exotic eyes bright with fun. Mac, her bold red
hair choppy in tufts, green eyes wickedly amused, lean and long in
her jeans and black shirt.
"What's the joke?" Laurel demanded.
"Men." Mac set down the plates of brie en croute and
spinach tartlets Mrs. Grady had shoved into her hands on the way
through the kitchen. "The two of them who thought they could arm
wrestle for Emma."
"It was kind of sweet," Emma insisted. "They were brothers and
came into the shop for flowers for their mother's birthday. One
thing led to the other."
"Guys come into the studio all the time." Mac popped a sugared
red grape into her mouth from the bowl already on the table. "None
of them ever arm wrestle each other for a date with me."
"Some things never change," Laurel said, raising her glass to
"Some things do," Parker spoke out. She had to start, had to
move. "That's why I asked you all to come tonight."
Emma paused as she reached for the brie. "Is something
"No. But I wanted to talk to you all, at once." Determined,
Parker poured wine for Mac and Emma. "Let's sit down."
"Uh-oh," Mac warned.
"No uh-ohs," Parker insisted. "I want to say first, I love you
all so much, and have forever. And will forever. We've shared so
much, good and bad. And when things were at their worst, I knew
you'd be there."
"We're all there for each other." Emma leaned over and laid a
hand on Parker's. "That's what friends do."
"Yes, it is. I want you to know how much you mean to me, and
want you to know that if any of you don't want to try what I'm
about to propose, for any reason at all, it changes nothing between
She held up a hand before anyone could speak. "Let me start this
way. Emma, you want your own florist business one day, right?"
"It's always been the dream. I mean I'm happy working in the
shop, and the boss gives me a lot of leeway, but I hope, down the
road, to have my own. But --- "
"No buts yet. Mac, you've got too much talent, too much
creativity to spend every day taking passport photos and posed kid
"My talent knows no bounds," Mac said lightly, "but a girl's got
"You'd rather have your own photography studio."
"I'd rather have Justin Timberlake arm wrestling Ashton Kutcher
for me, too --- and it's just as likely."
"Laurel, you studied in New York and Paris with the aim of
becoming a pastry chef."
"An international sensation of a pastry chef."
"And you've settled for working at the Willows."
She swallowed a bite of her spinach tart. "Well, hey --- "
"Part of that settling was to be here for me after we lost Mom
and Dad. I studied," Parker continued, "with the goal of starting
my own business. I always had an idea of what it would be, but it
seemed like a pipe dream. One I never shared with any of you. But
over these last months, it's begun to feel more reachable, more
"For Christ's sake, Parker, what is it?" Laurel demanded.
"I want us to go into business together. The four of us, with
each of us running our own end of it --- according to our field of
interest and expertise, while merging them together under one
umbrella, so to speak."
"Go into business?" Emma echoed.
"You remember how we used to play Wedding Day? How we'd all take
turns playing parts, and wearing costumes, planning the
"I liked marrying Harold best." Mac smiled over the memory of
the long-departed Brown family dog. "He was so handsome and
"We could do it for real, make a business out of Wedding
"Providing costumes and cupcakes, and very patient dogs for
little girls?" Laurel suggested.
"No, by providing a unique and amazing venue --- this house,
these grounds; spectacular cakes and pastries; heartbreaking
bouquets and flowers; beautiful, creative photographs. And for my
part --- someone who'll oversee every detail to make a wedding, or
other important event, the most perfect day of the clients'
She barely took a breath. "I already have countless contacts
through my parents. Caterers, wine merchants, limo services, salons
--- everything. And what I don't have, I'll get. A full-service
wedding and event business, the four of us as equal partners."
"A wedding business." Emma's eyes went dreamy. "It sounds
wonderful, but how could we --- "
"I have a business model. I have figures and charts and answers
to legal questions if you've got them. Del helped me work it
"He's okay with it?" Laurel asked. "Delaney's okay with you
turning the estate, your home, into a business?"
"He's completely behind me on this. And his friend Jack's
willing to help by redesigning the pool house into a photographer's
studio, with living quarters above it, and the guest house into a
flower shop with an apartment. We can turn the auxiliary kitchen
here into your work space, Laurel."
"We'd live here, on the estate?"
"You'd have that option," Parker told Mac. "It's going to be a
lot of work, and it would be more efficient for all of us to be
onsite. I'll show you the figures, the model, the projection
charts, the works. But there's no point if any of you just don't
like the basic concept. And if you don't, well, I'll try to talk
you into it," Parker added with a laugh. "Then if you hate it, I'll
let it go."
"The hell you will." Laurel scooped a hand through her short cap
of hair. "How long have you been working this out?"
"Seriously? Actively? About three months. I had to talk to Del,
and Mrs. G, because without their support, it would never fly. But
I wanted to put it all together before springing it on you. It's
business," Parker said. "It would be our business, so it needs to
be formed that way from the ground up."
"Our business," Emma repeated. "Weddings. What's happier than a
"Or crazier," Laurel put in.
"The four of us can handle crazy. Parks?" Mac's dimples winked
as she held out a hand. "I'm so in."
"You can't commit until you've seen the model, the figures."
"Yes, I can," Mac corrected. "I want this."
"Me, too." Emma laid her hand on theirs.
Laurel took a breath, held it. Released. "I guess that makes it
unanimous." And she put her hand on theirs. "We'll kick wedding
Crazy Bride called at five twenty-eight a.m.
"I had a dream," she announced while Parker lay in the dark with
"An amazing dream. So real, so urgent, so full of color
and life! I'm sure it means something. I'm going to call my psychic
but I wanted to talk it over with you, first."
"Okay." With the grace of experience, Parker reached over,
turned her bedside lamp on low. "What was the dream about, Sabina?"
she asked as she picked up the pad and pen beside the lamp.
"Alice in Wonderland."
"You dreamed about Alice in Wonderland?"
"Specifically the Mad Hatter's tea party."
"Disney or Tim Burton?"
"Nothing." Parker shook back her hair, noted key words. "Go
"Well, there was music and a banquet of food. I was Alice, but I
wore my wedding dress, and Chase looked absolutely amazing in a
morning coat. The flowers, oh, they were spectacular. And all of
them singing and dancing. Everyone was so happy, toasting us,
clapping. Angelica was dressed as the Red Queen and playing a
Parker noted down MOH for Angelica, the maid of honor, then
continued to record other members of the wedding party. The best
man as the White Rabbit, the mother of the groom as the Cheshire
Cat, father of the bride, the March Hare.
She wondered what Sabina had eaten, drunk, or smoked before
going to bed.
"Isn't it fascinating, Parker?"
"Absolutely." As had been the pattern of tea leaves that had
determined Sabina's bridal colors, the tarot reading that had
forecast her honeymoon destination, the numerology that had pointed
to the only possible date for her wedding.
"I think maybe my subconscious and the fates are telling me I
need to do an Alice theme for the wedding. With costumes."
Parker closed her eyes. While she'd have said --- and would say
now --- that the Mad Hatter's Tea Party suited Sabina to the
ground, the event was less than two weeks away. The decor, the
flowers, the cake and desserts, the menu --- the works --- already
"Hmm," Parker said to give herself a moment to think. "That's an
"The dream --- "
"Says to me," Parker interjected, "the celebrational, magical,
fairy-tale atmosphere you've already chosen. It tells me you were
"Completely. It tells me you're excited and happy, and can't
wait for your day. Remember, the Mad Hatter held his tea party
every day. It's telling you that your life with Chase will be a
"Oh! Of course!"
"And, Sabina, when you stand in front of the looking glass in
the Bride's Suite on your wedding day, you'll be looking at
yourself with Alice's young, adventurous, happy heart."
Damn, I'm good, Parker thought as the crazy bride sighed.
"You're right, you're right. You're absolutely right. I'm so
glad I called you. I knew you'd know."
"That's what we're here for. It's going to be a beautiful
wedding, Sabina. Your perfect day."
After she hung up, Parker lay back a moment, but when she closed
her eyes, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party --- Disney version --- ran
manically in her head.
Resigned, she rose, crossed over to the French doors to the
terrace of the room that had once been her parents'. She opened
them to the morning air, took a deep breath of dawn as the sun took
its first peek over the horizon.
The last stars winked out in a world perfectly, wonderfully
still --- like a breath held.
The upside of crazy brides and those of that ilk was wakefulness
just before dawn when it seemed nothing and no one but she stirred,
nothing and no one but she had this moment when night passed its
torch to day, and the silvery light sheened to pearl that would
shimmer --- when that breath released --- to pale, lustrous
She left the doors open when she walked back into the bedroom.
Taking a band from the hammered silver box on her dresser, she
pulled her hair back into a tail. She shed her nightshirt for
cropped yoga pants and a support tank, chose a pair of running
shoes off the shelf in the casual section of her ruthlessly
She hooked her BlackBerry to her waistband, plugged in her
headphones, then headed out of her room toward her home gym.
She hit the lights, flipped on the news on the flat screen,
listening with half an ear as she took a few moments to
She set the elliptical for her usual three-mile program.
Halfway through the first mile, she smiled.
God, she loved her work. Loved the crazy brides, the sentimental
brides, the persnickety brides, even the monster brides.
She loved the details and demands, the hopes and dreams, the
constant affirmation of love and commitment she helped to
personalize for every couple.
Nobody, she determined, did it better than Vows.
What she, Mac, Emma, and Laurel had taken head-on one late
summer evening was now everything and more than they'd
And now, she thought as her smile widened, they were planning
weddings for Mac in December, Emma in April, Laurel in June.
Her friends were the brides now, and she couldn't wait to dig
deeper into those fine details.
Mac and Carter --- traditional with artistic twists. Emma and
Jack --- romance, romance, romance. Laurel and Del (God, her
brother was marrying her best friend!) --- elegant yet
Oh, she had ideas.
She'd hit mile two when Laurel came in.
"Fairy lights. Acres and miles and rivers of tiny white fairy
lights, all through the gardens, in the willows, on the arbors, the
Laurel blinked, yawned. "Huh?"
"Your wedding. Romantic, elegant, abundance without fuss."
"Huh." Laurel, her swing of blond hair clipped up, stepped on
the machine next to Parker's. "I'm just getting used to being
"I know what you like. I've worked up a basic overview."
"Of course you have." But Laurel smiled. "Where are you?" She
craned her head, scanned the readout on Parker's machine. "Shit!
Who called and when?"
"Crazy Bride. Just shy of five thirty. She had a dream."
"If you tell me she dreamed a new design for the cake, I'm going
to --- "
"Not to worry. I fixed it."
"How could I have doubted you?" She eased through her warm-up,
then kicked in. "Del's going to put his house on the market."
"Well, after he talks to you about it, but I'm here, you're
here, so I'm talking to you first. We talked about it last night.
He'll be back from Chicago tonight, by the way. So… he'd move
back in here, if that's okay with you."
"First, it's his house as much as mine. Second, you're staying."
Her eyes stung, shined. "You're staying," Parker repeated. "I
didn't want to push, and I know Del's got a great house, but --- Oh
God, Laurel, I didn't want you to move out. Now you won't."
"I love him so much I may be the next Crazy Bride, but I didn't
want to move out either. My wing's more than big enough, it
practically is a house. And he loves this place as much as
you, as much as all of us."
"Del's coming home," Parker murmured.
Her family, she thought, everyone she loved and cherished, would
soon be together. And that, she knew, was what made a home.
By eight fifty-nine, Parker was dressed in a sharply tailored
suit the color of ripe eggplants with a hint of frill on her crisp
white shirt. She spent precisely fifty-five minutes answering
e-mails, texts, and phone calls, refreshing notes in various client
files, checking and confirming deliveries with subcontractors on
At the stroke of ten she walked down from her third-floor office
for her first on-site appointment of the day.
She'd already researched the potential client. Bride, Deeanne
Hagar, local artist whose dreamy fantasy work had been reproduced
in posters and greeting cards. Groom, Wyatt Culpepper, landscape
designer. Both came from old money --- banking and real estate,
respectively --- and both were the youngest child of twice-divorced
Minimal digging had netted her the data that the newly engaged
couple had met at a greenfest, shared a fondness for bluegrass
music, and loved to travel.
She had mined other nuggets from websites, Facebook, magazine
and newspaper interviews, and friends of friends of friends, and
had already decided on the overall approach of the initial tour,
which would include the mothers of both.
She scanned areas as she did a quick pass-through on the main
level, pleased with Emma's romantic flower displays.
She popped into the family kitchen where, as expected, Mrs.
Grady was putting the finishing touches on the coffee tray, the
iced sun tea Parker had requested, and a platter of fresh fruit
highlighted with Laurel's tissue-thin butter cookies.
"Looks perfect, Mrs. G."
"It's ready when you are."
"Let's go ahead and set it up in the main parlor. If they want
the tour straight off, maybe we'll move it outside. It's beautiful
Parker moved in to help, but Mrs. Grady waved her off. "I've got
it. I just put it together that I know the bride's first
"Didn't last long, did she?" Movements brisk, Mrs. Grady
transferred the trays to a tea cart. "Never made the second wedding
anniversary, if I remember right. Pretty woman, and sweet enough.
Dim as a five-watt bulb, but good-hearted." Mrs. Grady flicked her
fingertips over the skirt of her bib apron. "She married again ---
some Spaniard --- and moved to Barcelona."
"I don't know why I spend any time on the Internet, when I can
just plug in to you."
"If you had, I'd've told you Mac's mother had a flirt with the
bride's daddy between wives two and three."
"Linda? Not a surprise."
"Well, we can all be grateful it didn't take. I like the girl's
pictures," she added as they rolled the cart toward the parlor.
"You've seen them?"
Mrs. Grady winked. "You're not the only one who knows how to use
the Internet. There's the bell. Go on. Snag us another client."
"That's the plan."
Parker's first thought was the bride looked like the Hollywood
version of a fantasy artist with her waist-length tumble of gilded
red hair and almond-shaped green eyes. Her second was what a
beautiful bride Deeanne would make, and on the heels of it, just
how much she wanted a part of that.
"Good morning. Welcome to Vows. I'm Parker."
"Brown, right?" Wyatt shot out a hand. "I just want to say I
don't know who designed your landscape, but they're a genius. And I
wish it had been me."
"Thank you so much. Please come in."
"My mother, Patricia Ferrell. Deeanne's mom, Karen Bliss."
"It's lovely to meet all of you." Parker took stock quickly.
Wyatt took charge, but genially --- and all three women let him.
"Why don't we have a seat in the parlor for a few minutes and get
But Deeanne was already wandering the spacious foyer, scanning
the elegant staircase. "I thought it would be stuffy. I thought it
would feel stuffy." She turned back, her pretty summer
skirt swaying. "I studied your website. Everything looked perfect,
looked beautiful. But I thought, no, too perfect. I'm
still not convinced it's not too perfect, but it's not stuffy. Not
in the least."
"What my daughter might've said in many fewer words, Ms. Brown,
is you have a lovely home."
"Parker," she said, "and thank you, Mrs. Bliss. Coffee?" she
invited. "Or iced sun tea?"
"Could we just look around first?" Deeanne asked her.
"Especially outside, as Wyatt and I want an outdoor wedding."
"Why don't we start outside, then circle back through. You're
looking at next September," Parker continued as she moved to the
door leading to the side terrace.
"A year from now. That's why we're looking at this time, so we
can see how the landscape, the gardens, the light all work."
"We have several areas that can be utilized for outdoor
weddings. The most popular, especially for larger events is the
west terrace and pergola. But…"
"But?" Wyatt echoed as they strolled around the house.
"When I see the two of you, I picture something a little
different. Something we do now and then. The pond," she said as
they rounded to the back. "The willows, the roll of the lawns. I
see a flower-strewn arbor and white runners flowing like a river
between the rows of chairs --- white again, strung with flowers.
All of that reflected in the water of the pond. Banquets of flowers
everywhere --- but not formal, more natural arrangements. Cottage
garden flowers, but in mad abundance. My partner and our floral
designer Emmaline is an artist." Deeanne's eyes took on a gleam. "I
loved what I saw of her work on the website."
"You can speak with her directly if you decide to have your
wedding with us, or even if you're just considering it. I also see
fairy lights glittering, candles flickering. Everything natural,
organic --- but sumptuous, sparkling. Titania's bower. You'll wear
something flowing," she said to Deeanne. "Something fairylike, with
your hair down. No veil, but flowers in your hair."
"Yes. You're very good, aren't you?"
"It's what we do here. Tailor the day to reflect what you want
most, what you are, individually and to each other. You don't want
formal, but soft and dreamy. Neither contemporary nor
old-fashioned. You want you, and a bluegrass trio playing
you down the aisle."
"‘Never Ending Love,'" Wyatt supplied with a grin. "We've
already picked it. Will your artist of a florist work with us, not
only on the wedding landscape, but the bouquets and all that?"
"Every step of the way. It's entirely about you, and creating
the perfect --- even too-perfect --- day for you," she said with a
smile for Deeanne.
"I love the pond," Deeanne murmured as they stood on the terrace
looking out. "I love the image you've just painted in my head."
"Because the image is you, baby." Karen Bliss took her
daughter's hand. "It's absolutely you."
"Dancing on the lawn?" Wyatt's mother glanced over. "I checked
out the website, too, and I know you have a gorgeous ballroom. But
maybe they could have dancing out here."
"Absolutely. Either, both, however you want it done. If you're
interested we can set up a full consult, with my partners, discuss
those areas, and more details."
"What do you say we take a look at the rest." Wyatt leaned down
to kiss Deeanne's temple.
At four thirty, Parker was back at her desk refining
spreadsheets, charts, schedules. In concession to the end of the
day's appointments, her suit jacket hung on the back of her chair,
and her shoes sat under the desk.
She calculated another hour's paperwork, and considered the day
a blissfully light one. The rest of the week promised to be
insanely jammed, but with any luck, by six she'd be able to change
into casual clothes and treat herself to a glass of wine and
actually sit down to a meal.
She went hmm? at the rap on her doorjamb.
"Got a minute?" Mac asked.
"I happen to have several on me. You can have one." Parker
swiveled in her chair as Mac hauled in two shopping bags. "I missed
you in the gym this morning, but I see you've continued your weight
Grinning, Mac flexed. "Pretty good, huh?"
"You're ripped, Elliot. You'll have show-stopping arms on
Mac dropped into a chair. "I have to do justice to the dress you
found me. Listen, I've sworn not to become Mad Bride or Weepy Bride
or other various aspects of Annoying Bride, but it's getting close
and I just need assurances from the goddess of all wedding
"It's going to be perfect, and exactly right."
"I changed my mind on the first dance again."
"It doesn't matter. You can change it up until the
"But it's symptomatic, Parks. I can't seem to stick to a basic
item like a damn song."
"It's an important song."
"Is Carter taking dance lessons?"
Parker widened her eyes. "Why would you ask me?"
"I knew it! God, that's so sweet. You got Carter to
take dance lessons so he won't step on my feet during our first
"Carter asked me to arrange it --- as a surprise. So don't spoil
"It makes me gooey." Her shoulders lifted and fell with her
happy sigh. "Maybe I can't stick because I keep going gooey.
Anyway, I had that off-site engagement shoot this afternoon."
"How'd it go?"
"Aces. They're so damn cute I wanted to marry both of them. Then
I did something stupid on the way home. I stopped by the shoe
department at Nordstrom."