Arabella Jones swung the leather strap of her computer bag over her shoulder before grabbing her suitcase to step off the plane. After a quick trek down the gangway, she scanned the throng of people rushing the new arrivals, their faces alight with anticipation.
Up ahead, the willowy blonde who had traveled for two hours in the seat across from Bella gave an exclamation of surprise. “John!”
A tall, equally blond young man thrust an armful of red roses at the girl. “I missed you.”
Arabella rolled her eyes and stepped around them, attempting to ignore the sultry sound of the girl’s voice as she melted against the man.
Alright, Lord, you brought the chance in a lifetime job, how about the mate for a lifetime?
A high-pitched wail brought a smile to her face, and she whirled around.
“Bel-la! There she is, Eric.” Camille of the gamine face and short-cropped brunette curls tilted her head to beam at her companion.
The Eric-in-question offered Camille a soulful look, full of the promise of imminent nuptials, before he held out a hand to Arabella.
Arabella dropped her carry-on and computer bag beside her as Camille performed the introduction.
“Arabella Jones, this is my Eric. Eric Riverton, this is my Bella.”
Bella and Eric shook hands with a laugh.
“She’s rather proprietary,” Bella said with that husky tone that captivated television audiences.
“See…told you,” Camille said with a quick look at Eric before she turned back to wrap Bella in a tight hug.
“Told him what?” Bella murmured against her friend’s cheek since Camille still had a death grip on her.
“About that dreamy voice of yours,” Camille released her and leaned back, “and those big violet eyes that send men to their knees in adoration.”
“Oh, yes, Eric. Didn’t you see the throng of adoring men who followed me here in abject subjugation to my every whim?”
The long-suffering Eric continued to smile. “You have a lovely voice, and I can see exactly why our local news was so anxious to get you. Ratings will definitely go up the minute you step before the camera.”
“Ahh,” Bella sighed, linking her arm in Camille’s and maneuvering them away from the other passengers and family. “It’s so nice to have family.”
“Have you got any luggage besides these bags?” Eric asked as he retrieved Bella’s things.
“Nope. I shipped everything.”
“How can you live out of one small suitcase?” Camille asked in a plaintive voice. “Eric has limited me to one full-size and two carry-ons for the honeymoon, and I still can’t fit all my stuff. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Practice. Besides, I thought you said I wouldn’t need any clothes before the wedding.”
“You won’t.” Camille studied Bella’s soft pink cashmere sweater and grey skirt with a practiced eye. “I knew you’d arrive in something fabulous. Now…you missed the rehearsal, so Eric will drive us by the church and I’ll go over the wedding really quickly. Unless you think we can just do it in the morning when we get there?”
“It’s pretty late, darling. Don’t you think it would be better for you and Bella to get some rest and take a look at the church tomorrow before the wedding? Really, all she has to do is walk down the aisle, pull back your veil, and hold your flowers. All of which you can prompt her to do when you turn toward her at the altar.”
“Men,” Camille said with a theatrical sigh. “Why do you have to reduce everything to mere practicalities?”
“So we can manage to cope with the drama of histrionic women.”
“Ooh!” Bella and Camille squealed in unison.
“That requires an appropriate retaliation,” Camille said.
“When he’s least expecting it,” Bella added.
“Not until I have your brother for back-up,” Eric said. “I’m not sure I can handle the both of you at once.”
“Oh, Bella, I can’t wait for you to meet Jeff. He’s so funny. You’ll love him. When he and Eric get together, I laugh so hard I lose my breath. You’ll see him at the wedding. He’s walking you down the aisle.” She paused with a calculated grin. “You’ll also get to meet Davis. He’s taking you out after the wedding.”
“So soon? Don’t I get to settle in first?”
“You don’t need to settle in. You’re staying at our place ’til we get back, and I don’t want you alone your first night here. I’ll be on my honeymoon. Remember? Besides, we’ve got a timetable.”
“Tell me later. I’m sure Eric doesn’t want to hear about my dating plans.”
“Hah! Too late for that,” he said. “I already know the advantages and disadvantages of every single male in Fair Haven.”
“What about their hottie ratio?” Bella asked with a teasing grin.
“I draw the line there.” He held up the keys and beeped the car locks. “Here we are, ladies.”
Throughout the drive to her parents’ house, Camille kept up a steady flow of wedding chatter. Bella barely had time to think as Camille recited the names of the bridesmaids and groomsmen and related their connection to her and Eric. At last, she turned in her seat to look back at Bella.
“Ok, now tell me everything I just told you.”
“Camille, I can’t even do that, and I know them all,” Eric said with a laugh.
“Hush. She can do it. Watch.”
“Your brother’s name is Jeff. He’s the best man but you don’t want him anywhere near Gretchen because although you’re still friends because her mother is your mother’s best friend, you haven’t forgiven her for the calculating way she dumped Jeff when they were eighteen and stupid…you really need to get over that. Gretchen is walking down the aisle with Michael, because he’s Eric’s predatory cousin and they deserve each other…”
Camille gasped. “I never said that.”
“Yeah, pretty much, you did. Next comes Sue, and she’s a doll but very quiet so her escort is Eric’s nerdy college friend Mason who just happens to be cute and doesn’t really know it…so they’re perfect for each other. You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were using your wedding to set up all your friends. Only, I’m going down the aisle with your brother, and you know how I feel about that.”
“She’s the queen of match-making,” Eric said. “You better watch out. What’s wrong with Jeff?”
“Nothing,” Camille huffed. “She’s never even met him, but she’s convinced I’ll get mad at her if she dates my brother.”
“That isn’t what I said, Cami, and you know it. You’re the closest thing I’ve got to family. Your parents always treat me as if I was their own, and I’m not going to chance losing their favor and yours by telling you that your brother is not the perfect specimen of humanity you think he is.”
“What if he is?”
“Then he won’t have any trouble finding a wife. New subject…so, how’d I do, Eric? Is that everyone?”
“Incredible. You didn’t miss anything…except maybe their dress sizes. How do you memorize information so quickly?”
“She’s always done that,” Camille said. “You should have seen her in college. Made all the guys drool because she knew more sports stats than they did.”
“Oh! Looks like we’re here,” Bella said as Eric pulled up to a two-story house ablaze with light. “I think your parents are expecting us. I’ll just run in and let you and Eric say your last good night as single folk.”
Without waiting for an answer, she jumped out of the car and ran up to the door.
This is it, Lord. Please let me know I made the right decision. If Camille’s family doesn’t care about me the way I care about them…
The door swung wide, and Camille’s mother rushed out. “Bella darling, Mama’s missed you so much.”
Thank you, Lord.
Tears sprang to Bella’s eyes as she walked into the outstretched arms. “I missed you, too. How’s dad?”
“I’m right here, cutie-pie.”
After reaching a hug around both women, Camille’s father stepped back. “Come in out of this chill, Bella. Mom’s got some hot chocolate and marshmallows ready for you.”
An hour later, Bella sat curled up in a chair in Camille’s room, sipping hot chocolate while Camille and her mother filled her in on more wedding details.
She sighed with contentment. This was the life she’d prayed for, a family that accepted her and encouraged her in the Lord. A place where she could settle for life. All she needed now was the mate. But that would come, too.
“What’s this I hear about you going out with Davis?” Camille’s mom asked.
“My latest compromise with Camille.”
“Camille?” Mom asked with a piercing look.
“She wants to get married, and she won’t go out with Jeff…won’t even consider him. So…she has to date seven guys, hand-picked by me.”
“Does it make you uncomfortable to think of dating Camille’s brother?” Mom asked with an understanding smile.
“Exactly. You’re family, and I don’t want anyone to get their feelings hurt.”
“Why seven dates?”
“God’s perfect number,” Camille said, grinning.
“I see. Well, I’m going to bed. Tomorrow is a big day.” She patted Bella on the shoulder. “You’ll like Davis. Everyone does. He’s a lot of fun.”
The next day, they slept long and hard then rushed to the church in a blur. Bella deposited Camille upstairs in the bride’s room then stumbled down the steps to find the salon. If she didn’t have a cup of coffee soon, she couldn’t be held responsible for the consequences.
She caught sight of the doorplate that said Hospitality Room and slipped inside. Within seconds, she held a Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee.
“Ahh, I needed that.”
“Me, too. Do you mind?” asked a deep, pleasant voice.
“Not at all.”
Bella stepped away from the coffee pot to study the face of the newcomer. Clear blue eyes, straight narrow nose, dark hair cropped short. Altogether, a pleasing countenance. The frame wasn’t too bad either, flat, toned abdomen, well-formed biceps, broad shoulders, and a height that was neither intimidating nor too short. She disliked towering over a guy when she wore spiky heels.
He smiled. “I know who you are. Those violet eyes are a dead-giveaway…and the voice. It’s nice to finally meet you, Arabella. Camille’s told me so much about you.”
Who in the world was this? Apparently, he expected her to know him. It had to be her date for this afternoon. “Nice to meet you, too. I’m looking forward to our date.”
He smiled, quirking an eyebrow at her. “Me, too. Even more so since meeting you.” He took a sip from his coffee and smiled again. “Well, I’ve got to get into my tux, so I can walk you down the aisle. Should be fun.”
Bella’s eyes widened as his words sank in. This wasn’t her date; it was Camille’s brother and she had just asked him for a date. “I am so sorry. I think I’ve made a mistake. I thought-”
“You thought I was Davis. That’s ok. I’ll hold you to that date. Let me know when you can work me in Camille’s schedule.”
No way was she committing to that. She waited until he disappeared down the hall then flew up the stairs and tore into the bride’s room.
“Ca-mi-ille,” she wailed. “I just ran into your brother.”
Camille turned startled eyes on her as she tugged up a petticoat. “Oh. Good.”
“No. Totally not good. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize him from pictures at your house.”
“Those pictures are from high school. Nobody would recognize him.”
“Well, I thought he was Davis and told him I was looking forward to our date. He said he was, too!”
Camille busted out laughing. “So, you’re hooked? Zip me up.”
“I’ll make some excuse.” She pulled at the zipper then stepped back. “Wow! You look…like a dream. Lovely, beautiful and everything a godly man could want.”
“You always know what to say.”
Less than thirty minutes later, Arabella stood at the back of the church beside Jeff. He winked as he held out his arm. “Shall we?”
She slipped her arm through his, hoping he couldn’t see how her stomach lurched with way too much appreciation. If his personality was anything like his smile, she’d have a hard time fighting his attraction. For now, she kept a smile on her face as they flowed smoothly down the aisle, nodding at the guests who smiled at them.
The next half hour flew by as Camille and Eric recited their vows. Arabella managed to keep up with the ceremony, moving Camille’s train and holding her flowers at the proper moments. The few times she made eye contact with Jeff brought instant reassurance because his easy smile seemed to tell her she was getting it all right.
Finally, the ceremony ended, and they posed for pictures, endless pictures, if Bella’s aching feet were a judge.
The photographer called for the pairs of the wedding party, and Jeff held out his hand. “That’s us, I believe.”
Bella stood patiently beside him while the photographer smoothed her dress and tilted her flowers. Then he turned their faces closer together and stepped back to the camera.
“I see your date,” Jeff said.
“Haven’t had time to think about it.”
“Say cheese,” the photographer called.
“Just talk to him,” Jeff said with a smile. “With that voice, he’ll be putty in your hands.”
Either Jeff was flirting with her or he was trying to put her at ease. Either way, she was happy to respond in kind.
“Are you?” she flicked his chin.
“Whew! Lady, you’re dangerous.”
Bella wandered away with a light heart. Jeff was fun. Thank goodness, he didn’t mind Camille and her parents adopting Bella into the family.
The photographer finally sent them to the reception, and Bella grabbed her flat shoes on the way. There was no telling how long she would have to remain. Camille had said something about her and Eric wanting to enjoy their reception for as long as they could.
Bella got in line, suddenly aware that she hadn’t had anything but coffee all day. With a laden plate, she made her way to the wedding party’s table and found her name card. Right next to Jeff. She smiled. Camille’s doing, no doubt.
He ambled up beside her and set his plate down to pull out her chair. “Together again, I see. This day just gets better and better.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Don’t look now, but Davis is headed your way.”
A very tall man with an electric smile and hair spiked with an abundance of product stopped in front of Arabella and leaned across the table to hold out his hand. “Hi. I’m Davis Montgomery. You must be Arabella.”
She wiped her mouth on her napkin and held up her hand. “Call me Bella. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“They’ve really kept you busy so far. I guess I’ll see you later on the dance floor.”
“Oh, uh, yes. I’ll join you shortly.”
They smiled at each other, and he bounded away.
“I am so glad I changed my shoes,” Bella muttered to herself.
“Feet hurting from those ridiculous sandals Camille picked out?”
“No, I like them. I just didn’t have a chance to break them in. He seems nice.”
“Everybody likes him…everybody.”
“Oh?” Bella asked turning to Jeff, but he didn’t reply.
There was no further opportunity for private conversation as the remainder of the wedding party joined them at the table and conversation flowed endlessly.
After she finished her meal, Bella sat back and enjoyed the chatter and laughter. Once again, she felt so right about making her home near Camille and her family.
From time to time, Camille glanced at her as if to check her welfare. Bella smiled reassuringly each time. Everything was so lovely.
When Eric finally pulled his bride to the dance floor, other couples formed and followed them. It didn’t take long for Gretchen to latch onto Jeff.
Bella sighed. Should she rescue him? She’d been given her orders from Camille, but Jeff didn’t seem to need help. Was it even the maid of honor’s responsibility to rescue the best man?
Just then, Camille caught Bella’s eye and glared, darting a glance at Gretchen and Jeff. Maid of Honor, she mouthed. Bella laughed to herself. Camille always read her mind.
She gave Camille a nod and shoved her chair back. Time to steal Jeff away from Gretchen.
“Hi,” she said with a smile as she pecked Gretchen on the shoulder. “I’m so sorry to intrude but Jeff promised to teach me how to dance before I have to leg it with anyone else.”
Gretchen looked up with startled eyes. “Of course.”
Bella moved into Jeff’s arms, and he tilted his head with a wry grin. “You don’t know how to dance? I find that hard to believe.”
“Wait until I step on your foot.”
He pulled her closer, and Bella relaxed in the steady rhythm of the song, nice and sweet.
The song appeared to be coming to an end, but the orchestra moved into the next selection without any break in tempo.
Bella sighed. How long did she have to keep this up? The forced intimacy with a man she found attractive but didn’t want to find attractive was a little unnerving.
“Bored?” Jeff asked.
“Not at all.”
“It certainly wasn’t because I find you boring.” She lifted her eyes to meet his. “Quite the opposite.”
“Yes, it’s so comforting to have a brother to swirl you around the dance floor and know that you don’t have to fake conversation.”
His face looked so crestfallen that Bella laughed. “I find you entertaining as well.”
“Then it’s good Camille didn’t hire the clown.”
“Now, you’re just fishing for compliments.”
“Will I get one?”
“Hey, Jeff, mind if I cut in?” Davis grabbed Bella’s hand from Jeff’s shoulder.
“Be my guest.”
As he whirled her away, Bella glanced back at Jeff. Did he look just a little disappointed? She was, and that was dangerous. She smiled up at Davis.
“So, Davis. What do you do for a living?”
“Didn’t Camille tell you? I’m the local tennis pro. Actually, I run the pro shop at the country club and schedule the courts and the golf course. I also do a little coaching. We’ve got some state champions on our high school tennis team.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Yeah, do you play? We should go some time.”
“Oh, I haven’t played tennis in years, and I’ve never tried golf.”
He dipped her unexpectedly, and Bella almost lost her footing.
“I’ve got you,” he said with a grin she found a little too cocky. “Golf isn’t that hard. I’m sure you’ll pick it right up. I’ll schedule you in for next weekend.”
A tinge of annoyance further darkened Bella’s mood as she smiled at him. “Let me get back to you. I haven’t settled things with the news station nor have I found an apartment yet.”
“Sure. Give me your number, and I’ll call you. I know this great apartment complex. I’m staying there myself…really exclusive. I’ll give the manager your name and number and have him set up a tour.”
Bella tried to smile, but her heart definitely wasn’t in it. She really disliked it when people made decisions for her without considering her feelings. Davis appeared to be one of those types. How many more hours would she have to spend with him before this reception ended and their “date” began?
Gretchen sidled up to them, and Davis turned a radiant smile in her direction.
“Do you mind?” he asked Bella as he moved away from her to grab Gretchen’s hand.
“Go right ahead. I’m going to get a drink.”
Was it her imagination, or did Gretchen look a little self-satisfied as she stole away with Davis? Baby, he’s all yours. Permanently, if you want him.
She took a deep breath and strolled to the punch bowl. A young woman smiled as she held out a cup.
Bella shook her head. “Do you know where I can get some water?”
A touch at her elbow brought her head around. Jeff handed her a bottle of water.
“Thanks. Aren’t you helpful?”
“I try. Mom and Dad would like to show you off, I think. Have you met Eric’s parents?”
“Get ready. Here we go.”
He took her elbow and led her across the crowded room. Bella searched the guests for Camille’s parents and sighted them talking to a refined silver-haired couple. Though Camille’s parents spoke with animation, using gestures and smiling a lot, Eric’s parents barely registered a response.
“Why do I get the feeling that I’m being fed to lions?”
“They aren’t that bad, but Eric’s family is considered the aristocracy of our little town and they know it.”
“How do they feel about Camille? They seemed nice enough at the wedding.”
“Resistant at first, but everyone likes Camille. I don’t think Eric gave them a choice. He’s liked Camille since high school, but they put a stop to it then. When she came back from college, he told them Camille or no one. Don’t you already know all this from Camille?”
“Yeah, I just wanted your take on things. Eric really has character to stand up to his parents. They could have cut him off.”
“Especially since he gave his life to God. I think that gave him the courage he needed. Here we are. Just smile and use that intoxicating voice.”
Bella chatted with Jeff’s parents, keeping a smile to her face till she thought her cheek muscles would freeze. They seemed to have great plans for Camille and Eric…and Bella, now that they’d met her.
Apparently, her date with Davis was common knowledge because Eric’s mother was already planning a dinner party for Camille, Eric, Bella, Davis, and Jeff for after the new couple returned from their honeymoon.
“Of course,” she said with a slight smile. “We’ll find someone for you, Jeff.”
“I’ll have to get back to you, Mrs. Riverton,” Bella said in a firm voice. “I’m not at all sure about my schedule at the station. But it sounds like fun. Would you excuse me? I think I see Davis now.”
She smiled and stepped away, leaving Jeff to fend for himself.
What a family! Camille had her work cut out for her with the Rivertons. But that’s what family is like, isn’t it Lord? And that’s what I want. The annoying, the great, the not-so-great, and the overwhelmingly amazing feeling of being a part of it all.
Davis whizzed past with yet another young woman on his arm and smiled at Bella. She waved then made her way to the balcony. A little fresh air seemed in order.
Once outside, the nippy air brought chill bumps to her arms in less than five minutes, but she wasn’t going back inside. Her head needed a moment to clear from all the new sensations and people. She breathed deeply. Thank you, Lord. It’s a big change, but I like it. I know your hand is in it.
She heard the door open behind her and turned to see Jeff. He held up a jacket. “I thought you might need this.”
“Are you my knight in shining armor tonight?”
“Camille told me not to take my eyes off you for a second, in case you needed anything.”
She shrugged into the jacket. “I don’t think I’m that fragile, but I appreciate her concern…and yours. It helps not to be alone.”
“You’re never alone in this family. They won’t let you.”
“That’s exactly what I’m counting on.”
She shivered, and Jeff put his arm around her.
“Tell me how you and Camille met. I’ve heard her version. What’s yours?”
Bella laughed. “Camille is larger than life. I wasn’t. My parents died in a car crash when I was seventeen. I was in the car with them and couldn’t do a thing. My sister Sue is six years older. We weren’t close. We love each other; we just don’t exactly share secrets, if you know what I mean.”
He nodded. “Go on.”
“Sue insisted I go to college because my parents had put some money aside for that. I got scholarships for the rest, and there you have it. I met Camille in speech class. She…adopted me and helped me get through it. At the time, I wasn’t exactly vocal. She changed all that. She also convinced me that going into nursing wasn’t for me at all.”
“How’d you choose nursing? The crash?”
“Exactly.” She looked up at him in wonder. He understood. Camille always had, too. She loved this family. “I felt so helpless, and I didn’t ever want to feel that way again. But I hated my nursing classes. Camille convinced me to take first-aid so I wouldn’t feel so inadequate then pushed me into more speech classes. She said with a voice like mine, I needed to sell the assets.” She shrugged. “I discovered I really liked it.”
The door opened, and Camille’s dad stuck out his head. “The bride and groom are changing. Camille sent me to get you.”
Thirty minutes later, in a flurry of rice and good wishes, the happy couple drove away.
From the corner of her eye, Bella sighted Davis with yet another woman. He saw Bella and hurried to her side. “Hey, are you ready to leave? We’re going to this club downtown. They have dancing all night.”
“Oh, thanks, but I’m all in. I think I’ll catch a cab and head back to the house. It was nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, let’s do it again soon.” He offered a shining smile then walked away to a group of revelers.
“Not if I can help it,” Bella muttered.
And that was the end of her first date. Thank goodness.
Jeff appeared at her side and smiled. “Leaving for the club?”
“Absolutely not. I’m going to Camille’s.”
“Can I give you a ride? I’m headed that way.”
“That would be great.”
“Do we need to go by Mom and Dad’s and pick up your suitcase?”
“Do you mind?”
“It’s on the way.”
When they pulled up to the house, the windows were all dark.
“Looks like we beat your mom and dad.”
“If I know Mom, she’s packing up all the left-overs for the half-way house.”
“I love your family.”
“Does that include me specifically?” he asked with a grin as he leaned across her to open her door.
“You’re very charming, and I will add you to the list of Coopers that I love.”
He stared into her eyes for an uncomfortable moment. “That will do…for now. Need me to go up with you?”
“I think I can manage to carry one bag.”
She ran up the stairs, grabbed her computer bag and her suitcase then hurried back to the car.
Jeff drove her to Camille’s house and idled in the driveway. “So, when are we going on that date?”
“I don’t think I have room in Camille’s schedule. Besides, I don’t date relatives.”
“I’m not a relative. What are you going to do for a vehicle tomorrow?”
“I…I will probably rent a car until I have time to buy one.”
“Why don’t I take you to look for a car or an apartment?”
“Hmm. Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
“Shall I pick you up for breakfast?”
She opened the car door. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“I have strict instructions from Camille not to let you do anything on your own. She doesn’t want you to feel lonely.”
“Then she shouldn’t have set me up with Davis.”
Jeff laughed. “Everybody likes Davis.”
“I think that’s the problem. I felt invisible.”
“Sorry. I’m sure she didn’t intend that at all. Why don’t I pick you up in the morning, and we can spend the whole day making you feel visible. I won’t take my eyes off you.”
“Creeper. Call me tomorrow. I might be too tired to move.”
“Give me your phone. I’ll put my number in.”
She sighed and turned in the seat until she faced him. “You’re one of those bossy types, aren’t you?”
“Sorry. It’s a family trait, I’m afraid. Is it loveable?”
“Let me think about it. ‘Night, Jeff.”
“Good night, Arabella. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“I shall answer.”
She climbed out of the car and walked to the front stoop. Jeff remained until she walked in the house and shut the door behind her.