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By:Jamie Farrell

Jamie Farrell

       To Jill. Thanks for always being willing to talk about those hunky country boys with me while I was writing Matched. (Okay, and for continuing to talk to me about those hunky country boys even though Matched is finished.)

Chapter One

LINDSEY CASTELLANO'S love-hate relationship with love was trumped only by her hate-hate relationship with microphones. Yet here she was, at her sister's second wedding reception, as the maid of honor again, staring down a microphone again, to toast the newlywed couple again, before an enormous crowd in her hometown of Bliss, Illinois, the Most Married-est Town on Earth.

And, once again, Lindsey wished Natalie had picked Mom to stand beside her instead.

At Nat's first wedding, Lindsey had wanted to relinquish the attendant duty for several reasons. Because she hated microphones. Because she hated crowds almost as much as she hated microphones. Because Nat had picked the wrong groom.

This time, though, Lindsey wished she could've passed the honor to Mom simply because she wished Mom were still here.

"Good evening," Lindsey said into the evil microphone. Her voice bounced off the white textured walls. The audience-a mix of family and wedding crashers-eyed her from the dance floor as though they could see her smiley face panties. Despite the blustery late December weather outside, Lindsey needed a fan and a cold drink. "I was told this would be a small thing. Friendlies only."

A few people snickered. A few grimaced. Natalie, resplendent in her wedding attire of jeans and the Second Chance Misfits T-shirt that she and CJ had asked all their invited guests to wear, offered her a sympathetic smile and a thumbs-up. Behind her, CJ grinned like the evil redheaded SOB that he was. But he made Nat and her four-year-old son, Noah, happy. He also gave Lindsey free drinks at his bar and was always good for a laugh, so she actually liked him a lot.

Lindsey sucked in a breath that the microphone caught and amplified so loud, the Mars rovers probably heard it. Her champagne flute wobbled in her sweaty hand, and her pulse hammered hard enough to crack a diamond. Words. She had to say a few more words, then she could return to obscurity.

"So I'll make this short." She had to, because her tongue was getting thick and dry, and there was no telling what she'd say if she didn't. She'd had ten years of practice as a divorce lawyer. She should be able to handle a few words. But microphones did her in every time. "To my favorite sister in the whole world, and the man who had better not ever have reason to see me in a professional capacity. Congratulations, and many happy returns."

Dad lifted his glass. "To Nat and CJ!" Clapping and shouts of "Cheers!" spread through the ballroom, from the deejay to all eleven of CJ's sisters-Lindsey's new competition for Most Favored Aunt status-to the whole of Bliss's bridal brigade, Knot Fest committee members, and Bridal Retailers Association honchos who had crashed the wedding.

Lindsey passed the microphone to the deejay and chugged her champagne, letting the sting of bubbly in her throat wash away her discomfort, then escaped the spotlight.

Nat grabbed her in a hug. CJ joined in. The goober knew Lindsey hated enclosed spaces, but he had thirty years' worth of experience in tormenting sisters.

"Isn't that the same thing you said at my first wedding?" Nat said.

"Yes, but this time I'm optimistic you won't need me." Lindsey's voice was almost steady. "Mom would've liked CJ."

Nat squeezed harder. "You're still coming to karaoke afterward? Family only this time. Cross my heart."

As if Lindsey could tell Nat no for anything today. "Absolutely. But no singing for me."

"That's a given," Nat agreed with a laugh.

Lindsey gave CJ a well-placed elbow to the ribs, and he backed off with an amused chuckle. Nat let go as well. Lindsey bent and planted a smacker on Noah's cheek, and while the deejay announced the first dance, she eased away.

She needed air.

Her dad squeezed her shoulder on her way past. "Beautiful, hon. Your mom would've loved every word."

Lindsey's eyes misted.

Melancholy wasn't her favorite mood, but it was something she'd gotten used to since Mom passed away.

Lindsey held up her glass and reached deep for her normal poise. "I'm going for a refill. You need anything?"

He declined. Lindsey headed for the bar. Other guests offered what she took as pained smiles and nods. Or, possibly, the townsfolk of Bliss were not at all disturbed by her presence, and Lindsey's discomfort, loneliness, and awkwardness here had only been amplified by the liquid courage she'd needed to make the toast.                       


She returned the smiles and nods with as much dignity as she could manage. She did regularly have semi-friendly conversations with many of the people here, and she'd dated at least three of the single sons on The Aisle, Bliss's equivalent of Main Street, over the years since law school. But she still needed space.

And another glass of wine.

She stuck to the perimeter of the room and inched toward the bar while Nat and CJ danced with Noah between them. The deejay, the flowers, the big ballroom in the exclusive country club, the buffet, and the centerpieces were not things Nat had planned for her wedding reception, but the townsfolk of Bliss had decided to give them to her anyway. It wasn't every town that could pull off a surprise reception, but Bliss was unique. The local economy revolved around the wedding industry. Lindsey's family had been in the bridal gown business for four generations now, with their boutique nestled in amongst jewelers, florists, tux shops, the party supply store, other bridal boutiques, and every other bridal shop imaginable on The Aisle. As of last summer, Nat was a local hero. CJ was popular in his own right, and so the folks who ran The Aisle had crashed the wedding and brought gifts as only they could.

Including an open bar.

Lindsey thanked the bartender for a glass of Honeymoon Paradise wine from the local winery, then turned to watch the newlyweds while she tried to slow her still-pounding heart.

"Hey, you okay?" said an elegant Christmas tree beside her.

Lindsey peered closer at the tree.

Kimmie Elias peeked out between the branches. Her normally unruly dishwater hair was tucked in a braid, and her pale skin glowed in the twinkle of the white fairy lights.

Lindsey nodded. Normal, she reminded herself. Calm, cool, collected. She slid behind the tree with Kimmie. "I haven't seen you alone all day. Having fun?"

Kimmie winced. "Not exactly."

"Your mother's idea?"

"Yes. Again."

Kimmie had talked, dined, and drank with nearly every single guy at the reception tonight. Not because she wanted to, if Lindsey knew Kimmie.

"Were any of them-you know," Kimmie said. "Even close to not a bad match?"

Lindsey sipped the cool wine. She hated that question. It didn't come often-thank God she'd wised up during college and quit talking about her gift-but her family and friends and a decent number of the guests here tonight knew she'd been calling bad relationship matches with eerie accuracy since puberty. Since she'd come home as a divorce lawyer, though, she was rarely asked for her opinion on relationships.

Which was fine with Lindsey.

"Jake wasn't so bad," she said to Kimmie.

Kimmie squeaked, then buried her face in her hands. "Oh, pumplegunker. He's my cousin."

Breathing was getting easier, and Lindsey's racing heart was almost back under the speed limit. "You could move down South," she said. "You'd fit right in. And you'd get away from your mother."

"Mom's gonna slice my fruitcake if she hears about this."

Lindsey gave Kimmie a sympathetic nudge. "I'm teasing. He was actually the worst of all of them."

Kimmie blew out a breath. "Did I tell you my fortune cookie said unexpected friends would play a pivotal role in my love life? I almost came down with the floosles today, but I didn't want to miss Nat's wedding."

"The floosles?"

"A fake case of the flu and measles." Kimmie peeked around the tree at the dance floor. "Mom would pretty much roast my chestnuts if I weaseled out of a singles night though."

"It's Christmas time. Surely she wouldn't roast your chestnuts during the holidays."

"Yes, she would. And her master plan-you know what? Never mind. Are you thirsty? The winery sent eight cases. It goes great with the cupcakes."

Lindsey lifted her glass.

"Oh, right."

"You want some?" Lindsey asked.

Kimmie's lips tightened into an unusual grim line. "Not really. I-you know I like CJ, and I'm happy for Nat, but I always thought we'd be the three Bliss-keteers. You know. You, Nat, and me. Single and happy and weird together. Or close enough."

Lindsey and her melancholy totally got it. "You'll find your match one day," Lindsey said. "I'd bet all your cupcakes he won't be in Bliss, and your mother won't like him, but he'll make you happy. And that's all that matters."

"I don't think so," Kimmie said, "but you will."

Lindsey didn't bother masking a laugh. Years of being saddled with her unfortunate talent had taught her a few things. One was what to look for in short-term hookups to maximize benefits and minimize the pain of the breakups.