Audrey, the car will be here any minute. You're going to miss your plane."
"Shh. I just need another minute."
She leaned down over her sketch pad, nibbling the corner of her lip as she put the finishing touches on the train of an elaborate A-line wedding dress.
"Oh, Audrey! That's beautiful. Is it for Kim?"
She didn't reply for another moment or two; not until she felt perfectly secure in the fact that she could lay down her pencil and be done with it.
"There are two others in the leather portfolio in my closet. The messenger will be here at three o'clock to pick them up and get them into Manhattan by four." She handed her assistant the finished product, pausing for an instant to admire the drawing. "Be very careful about it, but put this one with the others, and be sure to zip it all the way around so they aren't wrinkled. Just give him the whole case, and call Kim once he's on his way to give her a heads-up that they'll be delivered to the penthouse."
"My plane lands in Atlanta at five-something, and it will take me an hour or so to get out to Roswell where this hotel is located. You've shipped—"
"And confirmed. Carly's dress is safe and sound at The Tanglewood Inn, awaiting your arrival."
Audrey sighed as she cast a quick glance toward the door where Kat had lined up her pink plaid luggage. One oversized rectangular case and one large round one, both on wheels, both packed to full capacity.
Audrey applied a glaze of Cherry Bliss to her lips while Kat added the final sketch to the leather case. She paused with the wand in mid-air until she heard the vvhht of the zipper. As she slipped the tube into its compartment inside her purse, the buzzer sounded.
"That will be your car," Kat announced. "But before you go ..."
Kat grabbed Audrey's hand and placed a compact little cell phone into it, closing her fingers around it. "Now this is the simplest cellular phone available."
"Kat, I do not want one of these. I told you that."
"I know. But you have to."
Audrey stared at the strange thing on her palm. "What do I do?"
"If it jingles, you open it. Like this." Kat demonstrated. "It will either be a phone call—in which case you press the blinking green button—or a text, which will come up automatically."
"Ah, maaan ..."
"I know. But it's the best way to keep in contact. You want to keep in contact with me, don't you?"
Audrey groaned. "Yes."
"So put this in your purse."
Audrey reluctantly tossed the thing into her bag as Kat pressed buttons on her own much more complicated-looking cell phone. An instant later, Audrey's purse began to ... sing.
"It sounds like a harp."
"That's your cue to pull it out and open it." Kat stared at her for a moment before nodding at Audrey's purse. "Go on. Answer it."
"I already know who it is."
Audrey groaned again as she produced the cell phone, unfolded it and stared at the thing.
"The green button," Kat prodded.
Audrey pressed the button and held the phone in the vicinity of her ear. "Audrey Regan isn't available right now, but please feel free to take a flying leap at the tone." As Kat opened her mouth to reply, Audrey interrupted with a "Beeeeeep."
Kat shook her head as she pushed the button on the wall intercom and she told the driver, "Come on in. We have a couple of bags." Back to Audrey, she remarked, "Text me when you arrive. Do you want me to show you how?"
"I'll call. Let me know the minute you confirm the sketches have reached Kim."
"The very minute, Katarina. We need this."
"I know. She's going to love them."
"As long as she loves them more than Vera Wang and Austin Scarlett."
Audrey paused in front of the full-length etched mirror propped against the wall. She smoothed the straight pencil skirt and adjusted the corset belt around her waist.
"Car for JFK," the driver announced, grabbing both of the bags.
"How much, by the way?" she asked as she followed him down the stairs.
"Ninety-five," Kat called out from the doorway. "Already charged to your card."
"Ninety-five dollars, from Soho to JFK?"
"You can grab a taxi for fifty bucks, Princess," the driver snapped, letting the street door flap shut in her face.
Audrey turned and looked back at Kat, standing in the doorway at the top of the stairs. "Charming."
Kat chuckled. "Have a good flight."
"One can only hope."
As she climbed into the back seat of the dark blue sedan, Audrey appreciated the good sense she'd had to hire Katarina Ivanov. Staring blankly out the window, Audrey sighed as the driver took a left on Kenmare.
She'd held interviews on a Tuesday afternoon in the corner booth at the Village Tart, and Kat had arrived fifteen minutes early. She'd ordered a coffee at another table while Audrey finished up with the design school student who looked like a cross between Buddy Holly and Kramer from Seinfeld. When they were through, the young man stood over Audrey, tapping his shiny patent leather shoe.
"So let's cut right to it, shall we?" he'd said, glaring at her over the bridge of thick black-rimmed glasses. "Do I have a shot at this or not? I'm only asking because I have two more interviews after yours, and I need to know whether I can blow them off."
"I think I can answer that," Kat told him as she transferred her espresso to Audrey's table and sat down. "Go on the interviews. I think we've decided which candidate is the best choice. I'm so sorry, but good luck to you." Her smile emanated a ray of pure sunshine.
The boy grimaced at her before he looked back at Audrey. She only shrugged. Twenty seconds later, the front door of the café thudded shut behind him.
"Did I go too far?" Kat asked her as she crossed her legs and wrinkled up her nose, flipping short dark waves of hair. "I know. Sometimes I go too far. But he was wasting your time. You weren't going to hire him."
"No," she said confidently, sliding her résumé across the table, only a slight trace of amusement in her dark brown eyes. "Even if you don't hire me, you certainly can't hire him. He's high maintenance; he's a drama a day, at least. And you don't need that."
"No. You need stability. Loyalty. You need a take-charge, organized fashionista who makes her workday all about you."
And Katarina Ivanov had been doing just that for more than a year since. Two parts Mother Earth and one part All-Business. Audrey had no idea what she would ever have done without her.
"Where are you going?" she suddenly asked the driver. "Are you taking the Van Wyck Expressway?"
"I got an idea," he tossed back at her over his shoulder. "You worry about your hat and gloves, and I'll take care of getting you to JFK."
I'm not wearing a hat and gloves, you Neanderthal.
When he glanced into the rearview and noticed Audrey seething at him, he sighed. "Don't worry your pretty little head. I'll get you there, Princess. Deal? Okay. Deal."
Audrey dug her bright red fingernails into her palms.
I despise New York.
But she knew it wasn't the city so much as the energy of the place. Ten million people crammed into jam-packed streets, everyone trying to get somewhere, all of them convinced that their particular mission trumped everyone else's. If her driver worked in another city, say St. Louis or Abilene, she felt certain he'd be far less disagreeable. Audrey, on the other hand, just wanted to survive long enough in New York to catch the tail of her dream.
Nearly out of money, and fast running out of steam, she had just enough of both to carry her through Carly's wedding in Atlanta. If she didn't score the job designing Kim Renfroe's wedding dress by the time she returned, Audrey would have to start thinking about throwing in the towel. Perhaps she could rustle up a job working for one of the other design houses. Her stab at venturing out on her own hadn't been the starship success she'd been convinced that it would be.
Two years and three months.
That's how long it had taken her to run through the inheritance Granny Beatrice had left her. Twenty-seven months, almost to the day. When she'd left Atlanta for New York, she had such high hopes of making a name for herself as a designer. Marginal successes along the way had not contributed much toward soaring, only toward staying afloat. And even that was in jeopardy now.
Audrey nibbled on the corner of her lip as she stared at the scenery beyond the sedan window. A mist of emotion rose in her eyes, blurring the passing cars. She really needed to figure out a way to tell Kat that she wouldn't be able to pay her much longer.
She wondered if Carly knew how much it cost her to drop everything and head home for a week, not to mention all the time and resources she'd spent on designing and creating Carly's dream bridal gown. By the time the Atlanta trip came to a close, she would find herself up against the final wall. She would say good-bye to Kat, convert her design studio on the other side of her apartment into a living space, and advertise for a roommate. Then she would go begging for a job with low pay and long hours in support of someone else's design reverie.
Unless Kim Renfroe chose to wear an Audrey Regan original for her spring wedding; in that case, the air in the tires of her dream would carry her on a little farther. Not much, but a little.
"You gonna answer that, Princess?"
"Your cell phone. It sounds like God is calling."
The jingle of her harp-phone nudged her as she wiped a tear from her cheek. "Oh. I didn't hear it."
She pulled the phone from her purse and fumbled with it. Finally, she heard Kat's muffled voice, and she held the thing up to her face.
"Audrey? I'm just checking on you. Audrey, are you there?"
She held the phone like a walkie-talkie she'd seen the night before in a late-night rerun of Star Trek. "Yes, I'm here, Scotty. Now either beam me up or quit bothering me. And Kat? Can you change the ring? Apparently, it sounds like God."
"I can't change the ringtone remotely, but—"
"I have to go now, Scotty. But only use this thing in an emergency, okay? It's annoying."
"Here we are. Terminal three."
She blinked, and a lone remnant of a tear wound its way down the curve of her face and dropped off her chin. Brushing its path dry with the back of her hand, she tossed the cell phone into her bag and inhaled sharply before cranking open the door and stepping out.
* * *
J. R. pulled off the black helmet, instinctively running a hand through his mane of shaggy brown hair, shaking it out. He glanced down at the CL Max helmet and noticed a tiny nick in the polycarbonate shell.
He unzipped the cuffs of his leather jacket and pulled off his gloves.
I paid a hundred and fifty bucks for this helmet just so this wouldn't happen.
He paused to tuck the helmet between his knees while he stuffed his gloves into the pocket of his leather jacket. He took another close look at the nick, then ran his hand over the flip-up shield before fitting the helmet under his arm and stalking through the brass-plated glass door of The Tanglewood Inn.
His brother Devon had called him early that morning to ask him to come straight to The Tanglewood rather than meeting up at the house, and J. R. had been glad for the change in plans. He hadn't been back in Atlanta for a while now, but he looked forward to catching up with the people he'd met there on his last pass-through with Russell.
Carly saw him first, and she hopped to her feet and rushed toward the entrance of the restaurant. With her honey-blonde hair pulled into a messy little bun at the back of her head and her glistening blue eyes dancing, his brother's fresh-faced bride curled her arms around his neck and placed several kisses on his cheek.
"I'm so happy you've arrived safely!" she exclaimed. "You and that motorcycle of yours—well, we just never stop worrying. Devon has been itching to see you!" She looped her arm through his and led him inside.
It struck him as funny that Devon and Carly worried about him riding his Harley when there had been so many more pertinent safety concerns with which to concern themselves. J. R. had to admit that relief over someone returning to Atlanta in one piece was something he knew all too well. He hadn't seen his little brother since before he left for his last tour of duty, his second in Afghanistan in just three years.
Devon, the same old twinkle in his eye, stood up as he approached the table. As J. R. drew his brother into an embrace, he exhaled for what felt like the first time in months. Relief washed over him, and he smacked Devon's back twice. "Good to see you, bro."
"Good to be seen."
Truer words had never been spoken, and J. R. sent up a quick prayer of thanks for the fact that his brother had come home from war virtually unscathed. Physically, anyway.
"Thanks for doing this, man."
J. R. chuckled. "There's no one else going to be your best man."
"J. R., I want you to meet my wedding planner, Sherilyn Drummond," Carly said.
Her familiar laughter took the form of music, and J. R. rounded the table and took a much smaller Sherilyn than he remembered into his arms.
"Oh, of course! You two have met."
"How's Dr. Andy?" he asked her.
"Wonderful," she sang. "You have to come to the house while you're in town. We'd love to have you over, maybe after these two leave for their honeymoon."
"Sounds like a plan. Maybe we'll get a good snowstorm out of season so we can barbecue."
Sherilyn's turquoise blue eyes glistened and her laughter warmed him to his soul. She tossed her copper hair over her shoulder before she sat down again.
"You look amazing," he told her.
"Doesn't she though?" Carly added. "She's lost forty pounds!"
"Forty-eight," Sherilyn corrected with a grin. "But no one's counting."
"Well, you were already a stunner, but—"
His words were sliced in two by the high-pitched shriek Carly released, and everyone's attention followed her as she raced from the table and into the arms of ... a knockout!
The platinum blonde pin-up girl had curves that pushed the boundaries of her straight skirt. A thick leather lace-up belt cinched her small waist, and the thin fabric of the ruffled blouse tried—and failed—to camouflage all that God Himself had endowed.
"Who is that?" J. R. whispered to Devon.
J. R. had heard the name often, but it had passed without much notice. If only he'd realized the embodiment of two simple syllables looked like this—
"Come and meet everyone!" Carly cried. As she dragged the vision toward them, J. R.'s own pulse began to thump in his ears. "Audrey Regan," she announced. "This is Sherilyn Drummond, my wedding planner."
"It's such a pleasure!" Sherilyn told her. "I love your designs."
"You know them?" Audrey asked with a chuckle.
"I saw your runway show at the bridal expo in Chicago last year. You're a genius with beading and tulle."
Audrey grabbed Sherilyn's hand and shook it vigorously. Tossing a cute little glance back at Carly, she wrinkled her turned-up nose and added, "I like her."
J. R. couldn't take his eyes off Audrey.
Carly giggled. "And you know Dev."
Audrey planted a kiss on Devon's lucky cheek while J. R. took a deep breath and pulled himself together.
"And this is Devon's brother, J. R."
"Hi, J. R."
He had no idea what he said in reply, only that the pin-up's light brown eyes reminded him suddenly of a sugar crumble on top of a tart apple crisp.
"Let's all sit down and order some lunch," Carly suggested. "And then the ladies can go upstairs to the suite and admire my dress!"
* * *
Audrey felt a surge of blessed reprieve as she, Carly, and Sherilyn left the restaurant. Devon's brother made her uncomfortable the way he kept gawking at her. Did he think she hadn't noticed? While everyone else focused on the conversation and the marvelous food, J. R. Hunt had fixated unapologetically on every move Audrey made. At one point, she'd dabbed the corner of her mouth with the linen napkin, thinking perhaps a forkful of spinach salad had missed its mark. When he wasn't deterred, she compulsively ran her tongue over her front teeth in hopes of dislodging some stray piece of food that might have held the guy's attention in a vice grip.
Excerpted from Always the Designer, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker. Copyright © 2012 Sandra D. Bricker. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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