When Charlotte Taylor’s best friend Gabe Donofrio agreed with her that she wasn’t the type of woman men fall in love with, she bet him a thousand dollars she’d have a marriage proposal in three months. She turned her tomboy self into a sexy siren, the world’s most eligible bachelor moved in next door… and Gabe realized he’d made a big mistake!
“I’m going to kill him,” Charlotte muttered, hitting the accelerator on her car awkwardly in her satin high heels. “I’m going to get through this wedding without throwing up, and then I’m going to kill him.”
The tires squealed as she tore into St. Mary’s lot, cutting the curve just a little too close. She whimpered. Her morning-after headache punched at her brain like a prizefighter.
Of all the days to be hungover, this was the red-letter worst.
Her car screeched to a stop and she yanked up the emergency brake. She took a quick glance in the rear-view mirror, grimacing at the pale greenish cast to her face. “I’m going to kill him,” she repeated.
She groaned as she wriggled out of her car, no small feat in her constricting pale-pink bridesmaid dress. She slammed the door shut, then gagged as the sound rang through her head. She rarely drank and had only experienced a hangover once before. She didn’t remember how bad that had been, but it couldn’t have been as bad as this. Nothing could be as bad as this.
“There you are, Charlie,” a male voice boomed from the front steps. “We’ve been waiting for you!”
She was wrong. There was something worse. “I am going to kill you,” she whispered.
Gabe Donofrio smiled mischievously at her from the top of the stairs. He looked handsome, as usual, she noted with disgust. That gorgeous summer tan he kept all year long held no tinge of post-party green. His gray eyes weren’t bloodshot, but lit with devilish humor. His dark hair and bright smile made him look as if he ought to be on the cover of a magazine. He looked as if he’d passed the previous evening curled up with a book and a glass of warm milk, when she knew perfectly well how he’d spent his night. He’d spent it making sure she’d be miserable this morning!
“Well, well, well.” Gabe eyed her curiously, meeting her halfway down the stairs but wisely staying out of arm’s reach. “Feeling a trifle ill this morning, are we?”
“Shut up. This is all your fault.” She gripped the cold steel banister as if it were a life preserver, while her stomach did a queasy little dance step. “What in the world possessed you to con me into crashing Brad’s bachelor party, anyway?”
“What were your options? If you’d stayed at my mom’s house with my sister the bride and her sidekick, Dana, you’d have gone crazy. Now that Bella’s getting married, you’re the last one.” Gabe laughed. “You realize, of course, that now they’re not going to rest until you’re hitched.”
She wished he were lying. The headache exploded dully behind her eyes, and her stomach constricted. “So you thought, say, the best way to prepare Charlotte for the grilling she’s going to get tomorrow is… I know! Having her watch a half-naked exotic dancer freeze her butt of on a beach!”
“Actually, I just figured I’d pour ten tequila poppers down you, and at least cheer you up for a few hours,” he said with a grin. “Come on, Charlie. Nobody held a gun to your head and made you drink.”
“You bet me!” She poked a finger at him. “You bet me a month’s worth of car washes that I couldn’t keep up with you. In the name of female honor, I had to pop that inflated ego of yours.”
“Female honor? Oh, right, that’s it,” he said, laughing. “You’ve been this way since we were eight. You can’t turn down a wager with me to save your life.”
“Wanna bet?” She glanced over her shoulder at him, then stuck her tongue out.
“And, I might add ,” his quicksilver eyes twinkled with amusement, “I’ve been beating you since you were eight.”
“Shut up.” She eyed him balefully. “Or I’ll throw up on your Armani suit.”
“And wouldn’t that go gorgeously with the décor,” he quipped, glancing into the church. “I think Bella’s got every gardenia in Southern California crammed in there. Honestly, I don’t know how someone as girly as my sister wound up with a nice, normal friend like you.”
Charlotte stepped into the small foyer of the church and stopped dead, assaulted by the overpowering floral scent. In her hungover state, the smell almost knocked her off of her feet.
“Oh, no.” She started taking quick, shallow breaths. “Oh, God.”
“Huh? Oh, nuts. Hold on, angel.” Gabe was at her side in a flash, the teasing look replaced with one of serious concern. He anchored her with one strong arm. “Take it easy, you’re going to be fine. They can wait a few more minutes,” he assured her, his voice low and comforting.
Charlotte fought the urge to sit down on the steps and ride out her wave of nausea, knowing that if she sat down, she’d never get back up. “How does Bella look?” she asked, more to get her mind off her stomach than anything.
Gabe shrugged. “Like she was caught in a lace factory that exploded.”
Charlotte chuckled appreciatively. Slowly, the pounding in her head receded. “If her dress is half as uncomfortable as this one, I pity her.”
“She’s getting married. I pity her already,” Gabe said, but his face still showed concern. “Feel better?”
“Not tremendously,” Charlotte said, sighing, “but it’ll have to do. My only goals for today are not throwing up on anyone, and avoiding the killer question.”
He snickered. “You mean,” he said, mimicking a nasal feminine whine, “’So, when are you getting married, Charlotte?’”
“Exactly.” Charlotte tried to ignore the pang the question caused, even asked as a joke. It seemed as if she’d been facing questions like that forever.
When are you going to find a nice boy, Charlotte?
Why can’t you be more like the other girls, Charlotte?
How do you expect to catch a man looking like that, Charlotte?
She was single by choice, she reminded herself. She’d said the words so often, she ought to have them tattooed on her forehead.
“You know, you wouldn’t keep getting hit with these questions if you’d stop saying yes to being a bridesmaid. What is this? Three times?”
“Four,” she corrected him, pulling herself stiffly upright.
“Oh, right. After four tours of duty as a bridesmaid, you know my family is going to hassle you into becoming a bride yourself. Besides, I know you. You’re not exactly the type who swoons over china patterns and floral arrangements. Why not sit one out?”
“It’s Bella, Gabe,” she said crossly. “I probably should have turned down the earlier weddings, but Dana and your sister… I had to say yes. They’re like my family.” She lurched up tot he foyer of the church. “Your family has actually been my family since Dad passed away.”
“I know,” Gabe said, subdued, then he chuckled. “I think I figured that out when my mother asked when you were going to give her a grandchild.”
Charlotte felt it again, that little pang, but it was different this time. It wasn’t just frustration, she noticed. It was suspiciously like envy. “The point is, I’d do anything for my friends, Gabe. You know that. The only reason I haven’t murdered you is the fact that you’re my best friend.” She smiled at him weakly. “But I swear, if you pull another stunt like last night’s bet, I won’t be responsible for my actions. Got it?”
“Of course, of course. I wouldn’t dream of it.” Gabe nodded solemnly, but a smile still haunted the corners of his lips.
When they stepped into the church, she saw ten pairs of eyes snap toward them eagerly. All of Gabe’s aunts homed in on her, calculating smiles on their faces.
“So I guess you won’t bet me a month’s worth of laundry that you can successfully avoid my aunts at the reception?” Gabe whispered gleefully. “Before you got here, I sort of suggested that you might be interested in the man-hunting department.”
“Make it two months,” Charlotte said through gritted teeth, “and remind me to kill you when this is all over.”