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The First Man You Meet(7)

By:Debbie Macomber



For a moment neither she nor Jill spoke. ‘‘Have you tried it on?'' Jill asked finally.

Shelly shook her head adamantly, not wanting her friend to realize how   emotional she'd become. ‘‘Heavens, no, but you can if you want.''

‘‘I don't think I could resist if I were you,'' Jill whispered,   obviously affected by the dress, too. ‘‘Just seeing it … makes me long to   be a bride myself.''

‘‘There's always Ralph,'' Shelly teased. Jill had been dating Ralph, a   computer programmer, for several months, but frankly she couldn't   understand what her friend saw in him.

Jill tossed her an irritated look. ‘‘The dress is for you, not me.''

‘‘But I don't want it,'' Shelly insisted, though she was no longer sure   what she felt. Not since she'd really examined the dress and allowed   herself to remember the wonder of John and Milly's romance.

‘‘You're sure you don't mind?'' Jill asked, slipping off her shoes. ‘‘I   mean, if you'd rather I didn't try it on, I'll understand.''

‘‘No, feel free.'' Shelly strove for a flippant air. ‘‘As far as I'm   concerned the dress is nothing but bad luck. It arrived on Friday the   thirteenth. The next day I had that minor accident on the mall   escalator. Now I'm being audited by the IRS.''

It was as if Jill didn't hear. ‘‘I doubt it'll fit,'' she said as she   cautiously removed the gown from the padded hanger. ‘‘I'm a good five   inches shorter than you and heavier on top.''

‘‘Maybe the dress was meant for you in the first place,'' Shelly   ventured. Perhaps Aunt Milly had been confused and it was Jill she'd   viewed in her dream. After all, Milly's eyes weren't what they used to   be. …

‘‘Does your mother know?'' Jill asked as she stepped into the dress. She   raised it over her hips and turned around to let Shelly fasten the   buttons that ran down the back.

‘‘That's another thing,'' Shelly moaned. ‘‘Mom's been calling me every   day since the dress arrived, wanting to know if I've met anyone special   yet.''

‘‘What did you tell her?'' Jill asked, looking at Shelly over her shoulder.

‘‘What's there to tell?'' she asked irritably.

‘‘Well, you might have mentioned Mark.''

‘‘Mark,'' Shelly repeated. She shrugged elaborately. ‘‘I haven't given   him a thought in days.'' Not strictly true, but she'd been trying not to   think about him. Even if he was interested in her-and he'd made very   clear that he wasn't-she couldn't imagine two more ill-suited people.   ‘‘I haven't seen him since last Saturday and I doubt I'll ever see him   again.''

‘‘You're sure of that?''

‘‘Positive.''

‘‘Well, what do you think?'' Jill asked next, pirouetting slowly in   front of her. ‘‘My hair's a mess and I've got hardly any makeup on,   but … ''

Shelly looked at her friend and sighed audibly. Never had she seen Jill   look lovelier. It was as if the dress had been made for her. ‘‘You look   absolutely enchanting. It fits like a dream.''

‘‘I feel like I am dreaming,'' Jill admitted softly. ‘‘Here,'' she said,   turning around, ‘‘undo me before I start longing for a husband and 2.5   children.''

‘‘Don't forget the house with the white picket fence,'' Shelly teased, unfastening the buttons.

Jill slipped out of the dress. ‘‘Your turn,'' she said as she laid it   carefully across the bed. ‘‘If it fits me, then it can't possibly fit   you. You've got the perfect excuse to mail it back to your aunt Milly.''                       
       
           



       

‘‘I … don't know.'' Shelly bit her lip. She felt an inexplicable urge to   keep the dress, and at the same time she would've willingly   express-mailed it back to her aunt. Even while she hesitated, Shelly   found herself undressing. She couldn't explain her sudden eagerness to   try on the wedding gown any more than she could fathom its growing   emotional appeal.

The dress slid easily over her hips. She turned around so Jill could   secure the back, then glanced toward the mirror, expecting to find the   skirt miles too short. It would have to be in order to fit Jill as   perfectly as it had.

‘‘Shelly,'' Jill whispered, then cupped her hand over her mouth. ‘‘My goodness … you look beautiful … really beautiful.''

The sentiment was what Shelly had felt when she'd viewed her friend in   the dress. ‘‘Something's wrong,'' she said once she found her voice.   ‘‘Something's very wrong.''

‘‘No,'' Jill countered, ‘‘it's very right. It's as if the dress was made for you.''

‘‘Then answer me this,'' Shelly whispered. ‘‘How is it possible for the   same dress to fit two women who wear totally different sizes?''





Chapter Five



Shelly struggled to open the door of the Internal Revenue office, her   arms weighted down with a huge box stuffed full of receipts and records   she'd need for the audit. By bracing the box against the wall with her   knee, she freed one hand to open the door. For the first time ever,   she'd completed her tax return early-all by herself, too-and this was   where it got her. She grumbled righteously and bit her lip, more in   anxiety than annoyance.

She'd just managed to grasp the door handle, when the door unexpectedly   opened and she staggered into the room, nearly colliding with an end   table. She did a quick pirouette, convinced she'd ruined a new pair of   panty hose. With a heartfelt sigh, she set her box of records on the   floor and sank into the first available chair, neatly arranging her   unaccustomed skirt around her knees. Only then did she bother to look   around. There was one other person in the large reception area.

Shelly's heart did a nosedive, landing somewhere in the pit of her   stomach. The man who'd opened the door for her, the man sitting in this   very waiting room, was none other than Mark Brady-the man she'd hoped  to  avoid for the rest of her natural life. She gave an involuntary  gasp.

Mark was leafing through the dog-eared pages of a magazine when he   happened to glance her way. The automatic smile quickly faded from his   face, and his gaze narrowed as if he strongly suspected Shelly had   purposely arranged this meeting.

‘‘What are you doing here?'' Shelly demanded.

‘‘I might ask you the same thing.''

‘‘I didn't follow you here, if that's what you're implying!''

‘‘Listen, Ms. … Hansen, I really couldn't care less.'' With that he   returned to his magazine as if he were reading the fine print in a   million-dollar contract. ‘‘You're the person who blurted out to everyone   within hearing distance that you weren't marrying me. As if I'd even   asked! As if I even knew you!''

Shelly felt the heat rising up her neck and quickly offered the first excuse she could think of. ‘‘I … was distraught.''

‘‘Obviously,'' he muttered from behind his magazine.

A few minutes of strained silence passed. Shelly shifted uncomfortably   in her chair, checking her watch every couple of minutes. For the first   time in recent history she was early for an appointment, but if this  was  where promptness got you, she'd prefer to be late.

‘‘All right, I apologize,'' Shelly said when she couldn't tolerate the   silence any longer. ‘‘I realize it was utterly ridiculous and … and out of   turn-''

‘‘Out of turn,'' Mark echoed, slapping the magazine down on the table. ‘‘I repeat-I don't even know you.''

‘‘I realize that.''

He inhaled deeply, which drew her attention to his broad, muscular   chest. She noticed that he was as meticulously dressed as he'd been at   their first encounter. His dark suit and silk tie, however conventional,   added a touch of sophistication to his natural good looks.

‘‘If there's anyone to blame for this it's Aunt Milly,'' Shelly said, more to herself than to him.                       

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