Ready to Wed ONLY
by USA Today bestselling author Cindi Madsen
Dakota Halifax loves to be in love. In fact, as one of Las Vegas’s premier wedding planners, she’s built a whole career around romance. Which is why her own wedding has to be nothing short of perfect. And then her fiancé jilts her. While she’s waiting in her wedding dress. On a cruise ship already out at sea.
Once back on dry land, Dakota tries to pour her heart into her business and weekly wedding advice column, Get Ready to Wed. But how can the heartbroken celebrate others’ true love? When she reconnects with her childhood best friend, surprisingly sexy and all-grown-up casino bouncer Brendan West, Dakota wonders if maybe she can fall back in love with being in love.
But then her ex reappears, begging for another chance and suddenly Dakota questions if she’ll ever understand love. Can someone once-burned and twice-shy ever find her way down the aisle again?
Title: Ready to Wed
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Praise for Cindi Madsen’s CINDERELLA SCREWED ME OVER:
“This romance is a keeper that will beg to be read over and over again.”
– USA Today’s HEA blog on Cinderella Screwed Me Over
An Excerpt from:
Ready to Wed
by Cindi Madsen
Copyright © 2014 by Cindi Madsen. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
What I hadn’t taken into account when Grant suggested the whole cruise-wedding combo was that while I was standing here in my white wedding dress, veil fluttering in the breeze, bouquet of fake blue roses in my hands, waiting for him to get his slow butt off the ship, all the other cruise-goers would be staring at me as they disembarked. I was used to being behind the scenes at weddings, ordering people around, making sure the ceremony went flawlessly. The spotlight wasn’t for me, especially when most of the onlookers were wearing floral-print casual wear and staring at me like I was an area attraction instead of an anxious bride.
My nerves were dancing all over the place and my stomach had relocated to my throat. I hadn’t realized how serious and final it was going to seem, these last moments before the I dos. Not that I wasn’t ready—I totally was. I loved Grant with my heart and soul, and I’d been waiting for this day my whole life. The day when I married the man of my dreams. Originally the setting hadn’t been Jamaica, but now that I could see the white sandy beaches and peer into the clear blue water, it was so perfect that goose bumps broke out across my skin.
Our wedding is going to be so beautiful.
And as soon as the preacher performed the marriage, we’d start our honeymoon, complete with stops to the Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico. The first two days on the ship had been nothing short of amazing, and I knew the rest of the trip—when we were finally married—would be even more so.
Still, I couldn’t help but wish Jillian were here. When Grant and I first started discussing the wedding cruise as a possibility, I’d asked my best friend about coming with us—I wanted her to be my bridesmaid. She said that as much as she’d love to be with me on my special day, she thought it’d be awkward to be the third wheel on a seven-day cruise. I saw her point, but right now, I was thinking it couldn’t be more awkward than standing here all alone in a wedding dress.
I tapped the bouquet against my palm. Blue wouldn’t have been my original color choice, but I was multitasking. The flowers used to be a centerpiece in my apartment, so they were my something old and something blue. When your baggage is limited and your dress takes up an entire suitcase, you take shortcuts where you can.
I glanced at my watch again. “What’s taking him so long?” I muttered to myself. The preacher was going to be waiting on us. The photographer should be with the preacher, too. It was a package deal I’d negotiated over the phone. Not meeting the people in real life beforehand made me a bit twitchy, but everyone I’d spoken to had been super friendly, and even better, their reviews were stellar. Everything was going to go smoothly—I’d triple-checked my triple checks.
And yet I could feel my blood pressure steadily climbing, anxiety seeping in. I was entering bride freak-out mode, the one I referred to as Code Fuchsia, because that’s a shit’s-about-to-get-real color. If I didn’t get it together, everything would quickly spiral out of control. I closed my eyes and pictured myself opposite me, what I’d say to a bride in this situation.
It only took a moment to find it, something I’d told countless brides who were waiting for their grooms. I’d give them a reassuring smile and say, “You know how guys are. Throw a few extra buttons on a shirt and it becomes impossible to put on.” And it was true. I’d seen guy after guy stare at a tux like it was the Rubik’s Cube of clothing. Girls had to deal with strapless bras and corseted backs and buttons and ribbons and tiny eyelets that would make you go blind if you stared at them for too long. But hand a cummerbund and a bow tie to a guy and he just blinked at them, mouth hanging open.
I took a deep breath of ocean-scented air and held it in until my heart rate returned to normal, and I was more Tangerine than Fuchsia. And even though the disembarking passengers still made me want to yell, “Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer!” it also made me realize just how many people there were. Of course it was taking Grant forever. It’s not like he’d shove old people and kids out of the way to get to me.
Maybe I should’ve just let him dress in cargo shorts and flip-flops like he’d wanted. But I’d gone along with the let’s-get-married-on-a-cruise idea—let go of all my old wedding plans and embraced the impulsivity. I still wanted the fancy white dress and to see Grant in a tux, though. I had a right to ask for those things, didn’t I?
Of course I did, although suddenly not letting him see me in the dress until we were outside seemed silly. Stupid tradition. It wasn’t like it’d even count, because he’d still see me before the ceremony. I’d simply wanted it to be out in the sunshine, where the light would catch the intricate beading of the bodice, instead of a tiny, dark cabin where moving meant whacking a knee or elbow on something.
I shifted my weight from my right foot to my left, and the heel of my rhinestone-and-pearl-encrusted pump sank in the ground, most likely getting coated in dirt.
It’ll all be okay once he gets here. Then these silly little details won’t matter. In fact, they’d be a great story to tell our friends and family, and our future kids when they asked about our wedding day.
For fifteen minutes I did a pretty good job of convincing myself everything was awesome. Totally on track. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t let the doubtful voice in the back of my head take over.
But then the rush of people coming off the ship slowed to a trickle, only the occasional couple or family here and there.
My breaths came faster and faster, my entire body started shaking, and the world around me blurred. “He changed his mind,” I whispered. “He doesn’t want to marry me.” As quietly as the words came out, they smothered the air around me and echoed in my head. He doesn’t want me.
This wasn’t happening.
Couldn’t be happening.
I fought the urge to fall to the ground in my dress and cry. I told myself that there was still time. No reason to freak out. Grant loved me. He wouldn’t do this to me.
I decided that I’d give him five more minutes.
Five more minutes until we had a very awkward boat ride home.
Fanatic Fuchsia –Severe
(Severe risk of meltdown, crying jags, and/or bridezilla-like behavior)
“Men are like puppies…you will get attached, bring them home,
and they will shit all over everything you love.”—Unknown
The swirly red letters on the front door of my office seemed to taunt me this morning. Ready to Wed,they proclaimed—there were even matching vinyl hearts on either side. I wanted to punch through the glass, watch the words and hearts shatter to the ground. I might even welcome the pain that the shards would be sure to bring to my knuckles, simply to have something to detract from the hollow ache that had settled over my heart.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
I had to face my office sometime, though, and with a client coming in first thing tomorrow morning, that only left today to do it without an audience. I didn’t want to end up crying at the sight of wedding paraphernalia during the consult. Brides had dibs on breakdowns in this office, and as I’d gotten to relive every day for the past two weeks, I definitely wasn’t a bride.
I shoved my way inside, frowning at the cheery room that was so covered in depictions of romance that even Venus, goddess of love herself, would probably say, “Whoa, girl. Maybe it’s time to stop hitting the ambrosia so hard.” Simply being in my office used to make me feel enamored, but right now it was rubbing salt in an open wound.
I took a generous sip of my coffee, hoping more caffeine would help, walked over to my desk, and dropped the giant stack of mail on top. There were a lot of envelopes in varying shades of white, cream, and pink, no doubt family and friends sending their matrimonial well wishes.
I tore one open and slid out the contents. There was a gift card to Bed Bath & Beyond inside. The next one had a hundred-dollar bill, and the one after that, a donation made in Grant’s and my name to save a seal. I was going to have to find a way to send it all back—well, not the save-a-seal gift. They’d have to bite the bullet on that one, because I wasn’t going to un-help the seals. But the rest would need to be returned. Did they make a thanks for the thought, but I’m still single card?
Even worse, I knew this was only the tip of the congrats iceberg. Most of Grant’s and my family and friends would’ve sent cards and gifts to the house, and they’d all need to be dealt with, too. My lungs felt like they were collapsing in on themselves. I shoved aside the rest of the cards, too depressed to deal right now. The Las Vegas Beacon was at the bottom of the stack. Because I’m obviously a masochist, I opened up to my column.
My wedding advice column, Get Ready to Wed, now made me feel like a bigger fraud than the six-foot-five drag queen who played Mariah Carey down at the Strat. Don’t get me wrong, the guy could sing—even hit those glass-shattering high-pitched notes—but he was no Mariah.
I used to be the real deal. The wedding planner who made it all happen, regardless of the snags involved in pulling off a perfect wedding. When people used to ask me how I did it, I threw out terms like “attention to detail,” “perfectionist,” and all of those nicer-sounding descriptions, but I’m not afraid to admit it anymore. It’s because I’m a control freak. I like making charts and lists and checking off one item at a time. When it’s Go Time and everything falls into place exactly like I planned—because I’ve ensured it will—satisfaction pumps through my veins. I even like the challenge of a last-minute problem. Plus, making a couple’s wedding dreams come true makes me feel like their fairy godmother—except I’m much younger and better dressed than your typical fairy godmother.
Vegas is synonymous with weddings, and believe it or not, some people who live here don’t want to get married in any of the little chapels of right here and now. I’d made a name for myself by pulling off extravagant weddings without a hitch—at least the clients didn’t know about all the hitches I frantically fixed behind the scenes. Which was how I’d landed an advice column in the local paper.
For my last one, I’d decided to go unconventional. I wanted to announce to the world—or the greater Las Vegas area, anyway—that I was about to marry the man I loved. Since we’d decided on a low-key wedding on a cruise ship, this was my way for everyone to share in the tingly awesomeness of an in-love couple tying the knot. I stared at the article now, and it definitely wasn’t giving me any kind of tingly feelings.
In fact, I was relatively sure I might puke.
Get Ready to Wed by Dakota Halifax
I’m Getting Married
The time has finally come for my very own wedding! My fiancé and I are going a little unconventional, which I know I sometimes frown upon (eighties-themed weddings—just say no). But to each their own, I guess. I’m going to go ahead and advise you to do whatever makes you happy. Not your mom, your sister, or your mother-in-law-to-be, but you. I suppose you might also want to consider your significant other’s feelings as well. I’ve heard that grooms now have a say in weddings—when the hell did that happen? (Don’t worry, in a future column I’ll teach you how to talk them out of that misguided Star Wars theme they want.)
But back to my wedding, because this time, I get to be the bride! The decision to get married on a beach in Jamaica was rather unplanned and out of character for me, but as soon as my fiancé suggested it, I knew it’d be perfect for us. As someone whose life revolves around planning weddings, it’s nice not to have to coordinate my own. Spontaneity can add an element of excitement, but to ensure it doesn’t turn into a source of stress and ruin the fun, there are some things to remember. You’re going to need a license, rings, and two people to witness your nuptials. There’s no reason you can’t throw in a bit of tradition, finding something borrowed, something new, and something blue. Be creative! It’ll only add to the memories. Coordinate with people wherever you’re going, be it a hotel, a church, or a Vegas chapel. Double-check credentials, too, especially if you’re going to wed out of the country. Then you can relax and enjoy the lead-up to the nuptials, whether it’s a couple hours, days, or weeks.
Special thanks to all the brides who’ve hired me to help them out on their special day. I now feel better prepared for anything that might come my way. But most importantly, I feel so lucky to have found a great guy. I can’t wait to become Mrs. Grant Douglas! As for the rest of you, I’ll be back to get you ready to wed in a few weeks.
Tears blurred my eyes as I read the last few lines. You’d think I’d be all cried out. I laid my head on the paper, let my hair fall over my eyes like a dark brown curtain that’d hopefully block out the day, and felt the wetness slide down my cheek. How was I supposed to come in tomorrow and act excited as I planned the next bride’s wedding? How was I supposed to write wedding advice columns when I couldn’t even pull off my own?
I’m a fraud. Although my checklist had been perfect. All those things I said a bride needed in that article were accounted for. I’d done everything I could to make sure the wedding went off without a hitch. As I’d so painfully learned, though, preparedness—or even experience—doesn’t mean anything if the other person doesn’t show up.
I heard the door open and slowly peeled myself off the paper. I thought maybe it was someone from UPS or FedEx, but the guy wasn’t wearing a uniform or holding any packages. I didn’t get many walk-ins. Especially not dude walk-ins. Several got dragged in eventually, but none had ever come in without his bride-to-be.
I so wasn’t ready to be in open-for-business mode, but I sucked it up and offered the best smile I could. “Hi. How can I help you?”
He ducked his head to avoid the hanging light fixture as he stepped closer, which had me guessing he was at least a couple inches past the six-foot range. “D.J.?”
Wow. Right to the point. “Sure, I can help you find a DJ. I’ll just need some information about what kind of music you want, where the event is going to be, and when it is.” I gestured to the chair across from me. “If you have a seat, we can get started.”
He tilted his head and studied me like I was an art exhibit instead of a person, two creases forming between his eyebrows. I couldn’t help but notice how good-looking he was, with messy dark blond hair that was longer on top than the sides, a strong nose that a girl could never pull off but suited him, and cheekbones usually found on male models.
I bet he’s getting married to a modelesque bride he won’t stand up at the altar. I hate her already.
“You’re not D.J.? I heard she owns this place, and you looked like you could be…”
No one had called me D.J. in years—not since high school. There was something familiar about this guy, like I’d seen his features before but not the exact way they were arranged.
“I’m D.J.—I usually go by Dakota these days—and this is my company. And you look very familiar, but I’m sorry, I can’t place you.”
He grinned, and something about it stirred memories that my mind couldn’t quite catch hold of. “It’s Brendan.”
“Brendan West?” I stood, looking him over in a new light, seeing a hint of the boy I used to know. “No. Way.”
His grin widened. “Yes way.”
“No freakin’ way!” I rounded my desk and hugged him, then felt a little awkward. Maybe a hug was too much? After all, it’d been about fifteen years.
But then he hugged me back, so tightly my feet left the ground. “I was almost sure it was you, even though”—he pulled away a few inches and peered at my face again—“you look so different. But the same.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” The thirteen-year-old boy I’d known hadn’t had all the height, muscles, or a five o’clock shadow on his chin.
He wiped a finger across my cheekbone, which made me freeze in place, not sure how to respond to that oddly intimate gesture. Then he held it up, a dark smudge now on his fingertip. “At first I thought you had a black eye, which wouldn’t have surprised me all that much, since I remember how rough you were when it came to sports.”
A black eye? I leaned back so I could see in the mirror hanging on the wall. There was a fabulous mixture of tear-streaked mascara and newsprint across my cheekbone. I wiped at it, but it just smeared more. “Hazards of taking a nap on a newspaper.” And crying, but I wasn’t going to mention that. “So, what are you doing in Vegas? Don’t tell me you’re getting married.”
“No,” he said in a way that made it seem like marriage would never cross his mind. “I moved back about a month ago, actually. My mom got in touch with your dad, and once I found out you were still here, I knew I had to look you up and see what became of the girl who used to be my best friend.”
I wished he’d chosen a different day, because I felt like a total mess. Not just felt like—I had black ink smudged on my face. I rubbed at it again. Before I could say anything, the office phone rang.
“Excuse me for just a minute,” I said, then answered the phone.
“Dakota,” Grant said, his voice stabbing me in my already-raw heart.
I gritted my teeth against the pain and the anger welling up in me. “How dare you call here.”
“You won’t answer on your cell, though, and we have to talk sometime. If you’ll just—”
“Don’t call here again, you hear me?” I slammed the phone down, holding it there as if that’d stop him from ever dialing me back.
Brendan raised an eyebrow, and I rubbed my fingers across my forehead. I knew Grant and I would have to talk eventually. I still needed to move the majority of my stuff out of his place, after all. But I wasn’t ready, and I needed to find a storage unit and—
“Is someone bothering you?” I was surprised at the concern in Brendan’s voice, and there was a bit of a protective vibe, too, if I wasn’t mistaken. He and I had been glued to each other’s sides from ages seven to thirteen, but that was a long time ago, and I didn’t want to drag him into my drama now.
I flopped into my chair. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Brendan sat on the edge of my desk, facing me, and I couldn’t get over how…big he was. So tall and filled-out and oozing confidence—not that he’d ever been short on that. “Look, security’s my thing. I work at the new Aces Resort and Casino. I get to take people down all the time. It’s kind of like I never finished playing Fugitive, only now I have much cooler high-tech gadgets.”
Despite my bad mood, I couldn’t help but smile. Fugitive. The game we used to play where there were two teams, the fugitives and the cops. It involved hiding and chasing, and sometimes—if you were lucky—tackling. When I was a kid, there was nothing like that adrenaline rush of taking someone down. Or getting away when someone tried to take me down. Brendan and I were always on the same team, and whether we were fugitives or cops, we always won. We were also always covered in dirt and scratches by the end of it, too, which was half the fun.
“You need cool gadgets to tackle people now?”
A boyish grin spread across his face. “Not need. Just like. Plus, I’ve got more so-called fugitives to watch out for.” He nudged me. “So, do you need to talk to the police? What about a restraining order?”
I waved off his words. “It’s nothing like that. It’s just my ex, and it’s complicated.”
Brendan frowned. “Complicated.”
I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “I take it you don’t read my column in the paper?”
“You’re a writer, too?”
“Not really. It’s just a tiny column with wedding tips. My last one was different from the norm because… Well, you see…” My mouth went dry and my lungs didn’t seem to be taking in air anymore. “I was supposed to get married a couple of weeks ago.”
Heat filled my cheeks, and it was too humiliating to say while he was staring at me like that. So I dropped my head in my hands. “He stood me up. At the altar. Only the altar was a beach in Jamaica, and we were on a cruise ship, which was basically like being held captive after that, and I’m just not ready to talk to him. So no restraining order required. Just…space, I guess.”
“Sorry, D.J.,” Brendan said. “I didn’t know. If there’s anything I can do…”
I pushed my hands through my hair. The fact was, it was time to go see Grant and figure out a more permanent living situation than crashing on Jillian’s couch. Not to mention my dog was still at his house—yet another complication that made me angry and sad and too many emotions to pick one from the next.
“I’d love to catch up sometime,” I said. “Next week I’ll have this mess sorted out better, but honestly, I’ve got a lot going on right now.” Like fighting the impulse to burst into tears again, which pissed me off. I’d never been much of a crier, and it was like all the years of holding back I’d done were gushing out of me now. Grant so didn’t deserve to have so many tears shed over him.
Brendan nodded, pulled out a business card, and gave it to me. “Come by the casino or give me a call.” He walked to the door, but turned around instead of pushing out of it. “I know you throw a killer right hook…” He rubbed his jaw as if he could still feel its effect, and then flashed me a smile. “But if you decide you need someone, you know where to find me.”
“And if you decide you need my help at the casino, I could use an excuse to get rowdy. You’d be surprised how few weddings give me the chance to use my hook.”
He laughed, and I waved good-bye. Joking with him left me cheered enough to fight back the tears. Funny enough, the last time I’d cried so much was probably when he’d moved away. Losing my best friend in junior high had seemed like the end of the world, and it’d taken a long time for his absence to stop sucking.
Technically, Brendan was my first fiancé. I smiled at that, thinking of all our plans when we were young, which were usually more about where we were riding our bikes, whose house we’d eat dinner at, or which sport to play. I wondered if I’d see him often now that he was back in Vegas, or if we’d try to hang out and it’d be weird. Then again, he was already trying to take care of me, something I’d always told him he didn’t need to do, though that never stopped him.
But before I could even think about rekindling my friendship with Brendan, I needed to deal with the guy who’d broken my heart into a thousand little pieces.