Avery Alyssa Sunshine stood at the back of the church, her practiced gaze sweeping over the large crowd sitting in the pews. The church was small and intimate, with soaring ceilings and elaborate stained-glass windows, giving the guests a taste of old-school religion and tradition. The lilies were creamy white and bursting with bloom. The faint scent of incense hung in the air. And her bride looked perfect—from the flowing trail of her sheer lace veil to the elaborate pearl-encrusted train that filled the chancel. The bride and groom gazed at each other with evident love, their beaming faces a reminder of why she loved her job as a wedding planner.
And then it happened.
“I object.” The lone male voice boomed in the air.
The crowd gasped, and the bride jerked around, china-blue eyes filled with horror.
No. No, no, no . . .
Dressed in a sharp black suit, the man stood up, arms extended as if in a last-minute plea, which it was. Avery glimpsed only the back of his head, his golden blond hair a bit long and brushing the nape of his neck. “Susan, I tried to move on, but you’re the only one I’ve ever loved. I can’t let you marry him if there’s still a chance for us.”
For one endless, horrifying moment, everything went dead quiet. Avery froze, her mind unable to compute this disaster since it was brand new and fell under the heading of Shit That Hasn’t Happened Yet, Thank God.
Nothing like an on-the-job education.
The bride’s face turned from horror to fury. Her teeth ground together, and her perfect rosy complexion flushed dark red. “You bastard!” she hissed through the delicate veil. “You cheated on me.”
Another gasp from the crowd. The priest’s jaw dropped. It was like the entire church was filming a rom-com and everyone knew their lines except Avery.
Oh, hell no. This was not going to become a Runaway Bride situation. Not on her watch.
She whipped out her phone and sent the text her sisters dreaded: Code Red. Code Red in the church.
The groom dropped his future wife’s hand and shot her a puzzled look. “Baby, who is this guy? Do you still have feelings for him?”
Avery shot into action, knowing there was precious time to save the wedding. Launching down the aisle in her three-inch heels, she reached the interloper in seconds, and before he could make another earth-shattering plea, she’d firmly yet politely placed a hand on his arm. “Sir, please come with me,” she said quietly, smile pasted in place. “Let’s talk about this in private.”
The bride let out a distressed cry, and the sudden hushed dialogue between the bride and groom echoed from the high ceilings and bounced straight to the ears of the crowd. Right on cue, Avery’s sister Bella popped out of the private room to the side of the altar and headed toward the organist. Within seconds, the beautiful strains of “Ave Maria” floated in the air, followed by the singer’s soaring soprano.
Avery prayed the interloper wouldn’t fight her—she didn’t want to tackle the guy in the aisle—but he seemed to realize actually breaking up a wedding wasn’t as much fun as in the movies. With a ducked head, he began to follow her out of the church.
Whispering soothing phrases to the cheater, she guided him into the small room where the brides are usually held before the ceremony, and shut the door behind them. She pointed to the bench. “Have a seat. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name?”
The man rubbed his head with both hands, messing up his too-long hair even more. “Ben Larson. I’ve known Susan since college. We promised to marry each other, but I was too young. I think we’re meant to be together.”
Her mind clicked through the guest list, snagged on the name, and brought up her mental notes. Ben Larson—an old friend who’d grown up with Susan, broken up with her after college, and recently reconnected. He helped out her mother, who’d pressured Susan to invite him. Was supposed to attend with his girlfriend.
Dammit, she hadn’t seen a red flag on this one.
The slight scent of beer on his breath indicated he’d had a few before the ceremony. A disjointed puzzle slowly came together: Ben breaks up with his current girlfriend. Feels sentimental, maybe a bit scared over still being alone. Has too much to drink, decides to attend the wedding alone, and in a spectacular, stupid move, impulsively convinces himself he still loves Susan.
“I understand, Ben,” Avery said in a warm voice. “Hang on.”
Bella would have quietly taken the bride and groom aside by now to mediate a discussion. The crowd needed one last distraction to buy them some time. Quickly, Avery tapped out a text to her other sister, Taylor.
Bring in the champagne. Need five more minutes.
Avery always made sure there were a few trays of poured champagne ready to go for any crisis. It was the ultimate distraction.
Her sister texted back. Allowed in the church?
Don’t care. Go.
Snapping her gaze away from the phone, she studied the cheating interloper in front of her. Time to de-bomb the situation. “Ben, did you and your girlfriend break up recently?”
A ragged sigh. His lips curved downward in a bit of a sulk. “Well, yeah, but that has nothing to do with this.”
“I think it does. Don’t you think if you had these feelings for Susan, you would have said something sooner? Maybe it’s not Susan you truly miss. Maybe it’s . . .” She trailed off, looking for help.
“Yes, Melissa. You see, Susan always considered you a good friend, especially to her mother. She appreciates that relationship, but never believed you were meant to be together. Now, Melissa, I bet she was a better match. It must’ve been hard losing her.”
He nodded, looking miserable. “Yeah, it was. I got scared. Was afraid she’d end up hurting me, so I broke up with her first. Stupid, huh?”
“Sometimes we do stupid things because we’re afraid. But I think if you’re brave enough to stand up in church and proclaim your feelings, you’re brave enough to go after Melissa. The one you truly love.” She paused for a beat. “Don’t you?”
He looked up. His eyes sparked with a hint of determination. “Yeah, I do. You’re right. I gotta get her back.”
“I agree.” Already, she was on her phone, getting an Uber to the front of the church. “A black SUV will be out front to take you where you need. To take you to Melissa.”
“I have my car.”
She shook her head. “No, you’ve had a few beers, and you want to make sure you practice your speech on the way over. Now, come with me. We’ll go out the side door.”
“Thanks.” Worry flickered over his face. “Hey, I didn’t mess up Susan’s wedding or anything, did I? Can you tell her I made a mistake? That I love Melissa instead?”
“Of course, I’ll fix it. Off you go.”
She pushed him out the door and dragged in a breath. Smoothing her hair, she composed herself, reentered the church, and assessed the situation.
Guests happily sipping champagne while the soloist kept singing her heart out.
Bride and groom smiling at each other again while Bella looked on.
Priest holding his stance at the altar, Bible open, ready to continue.
Bridesmaids and groomsmen standing still, probably due to Taylor threatening them if they uttered a word or took a step off the line.
She met her sisters’ gazes. They nodded. Order had been restored.
Bella escorted the couple back front and center the exact moment the last lingering note of music trailed off.
The priest smiled and skipped over the question he’d already asked, smoothly transitioning to the most important part of the ceremony. “And now, repeat after me . . .”
The vows were recited.
And once again, Avery relished a rush of satisfaction knowing she’d managed to provide the happy-ever-after her job required.
“That was intense.”
Avery glanced at her youngest sister, who’d uttered the declaration. They were settled in the private room at Sunshine Bridal. Taylor sprawled on the blush-pink leather couch, deliberately leaving no room for anyone else. She’d already ripped off her standard uniform of black skirt, dark tights, and pearl-colored silk blouse, replaced with jeans and a tank. Bella squished herself into the smallest chair in the official war room, always the first one to make a sacrifice. Avery was too tired to be noble, so she sank down in the last chair, the perfect oversize-recliner outfit with a cup holder for the usual needed cocktail.
Avery carefully peeled off the heels that had been molded to her feet and winced at the pain. She’d forgotten to bring her Tieks to change into. After the explosive ceremony, she’d been vibrating at a high intensity, focused on making sure no other errors slipped past her. The midnight reception had run well past, and they’d just finished up distributing payments and closing down shop.
It was 3:00 a.m.
She was too old for this crap.
“My head won’t stop pounding,” Bella moaned. “Who plays endless hip-hop at a Catholic wedding?”
Avery snorted, swallowing past the dryness in her throat that no amount of water seemed able to take away. Not after an eighteen-hour workday with no time to sit. “I think that’s discriminatory. We asked the DJ to bleep out all the expletives.”
“Which was unnecessary since they didn’t even play Drake,” Taylor pointed out. “I thought you talked the bride into including some songs her grandparents could dance to. They were getting bored.”
Avery arched a brow. “Is that why you started a Bingo game at the back table?”
Bella shook her head. Lustrous blonde strands of hair that rivaled Goldilocks’s swung across her shoulders. “You’re brilliant, T. I don’t know why you keep saying you hate your job. You have a natural talent for giving people what they want before they know it.”
Avery caught the slight flush of pleasure in her youngest sister’s cheeks, but it was quickly squashed. Taylor’s usual sarcastic sneer settled on her red lips, which complemented her pink hair. “After today’s debacle, you’re still wondering why I don’t believe in marriage? Honestly, I don’t get you two. It’s obvious the bride still has feelings for the cheater. She just chose the good guy because she wanted a settled relationship. What was once safe will eventually become boring, and they’ll be divorced within five years. It’s textbook.”
Avery swore she wouldn’t fight, not at this hour, but it was hard not to defend and explain. “No, I told you I spoke with him, and he was just feeling lonely.”
“I said her. Not him. His douchey move intrigued her enough to start thinking of the cheater, which is the beginning of the end.”
Bella groaned. “Stop. I don’t have the energy to listen to your conspiracies against love and marriage. I have to get up in three hours for Zoe, and you both stuck me with the afternoon tea party. Can we just cut this meeting short and go to bed?”
At the end of an event they worked together, they’d meet in the war room to go over the details—both good and bad—and give themselves some time to come down from the exhausted high of a wedding. Many times, they toasted with a glass of champagne, spent some time bonding, then retired to bed. But right now, Avery sensed an aura of impatience with her sisters. A weariness that wasn’t physical but mental. Were they beginning to regret their choices to take over the business?
When their parents announced they were moving to Florida and leaving Sunshine Bridal in their daughters’ capable hands, they’d all agreed on an even split. At first, Taylor had refused, citing her dream to travel and experience a worldly life without social constraints, but big plans required big money. She’d told them she would give it three years and planned to take off after that, giving them enough time to replace her. Bella had always expressed interest in being part of the family business, and as a single mother of a five-year-old, this gave her the stability she needed.
As for Avery? She had been born to be a wedding coordinator. She’d believed in fairy-tale love and marriage from the time she was young. Watching her parents grow and change as they raised their children, yet still retain the close bond between them, proved it existed. Sure, she was thirty-two and hadn’t experienced her own fairy-tale relationship, but dammit, she believed.
Her past relationships had been basically healthy, but she’d never fallen in love. Caring and deep affection? Yes. Passion? Yes. But not the vibrating knowledge in her core that told her she’d met her soul mate. She dreamed of the day she’d finally find her true companion. She didn’t want a string of one-night stands or men who didn’t believe in commitment. When she fell, it needed to be with a man who was brave enough to love her back and say it out loud—preferably with a ring and on bended knee not too long afterward.
That’s why she loved all the trappings and rituals that revolved around a wedding ceremony, even with the craziness popping up amid difficult relatives, jealous bridesmaids, other PITAs (Pain in the Asses), and endless minutiae. It all became worth it each time Avery watched someone walk down the aisle with all that wild hope, joy, and love etched on his or her face. Knowing she was a part of their permanent memories gave her a slice of immortality.
Still, her parents moaned about her pickiness. Her sisters rolled their eyes at her stubborn belief in perfection. Her friends begged her to freeze her eggs, just in case. But she didn’t care.
She’d wait for the one.
He’d come eventually. And he didn’t have to save her or give her some stupid glass slipper. She just wanted a man who saw all aspects of her—including her crazy—and loved her anyway. She wanted a man who’d be in it with her wholeheartedly: the bad, the good, and all the in-between.
Maybe that’s why she’d become the natural leader of the group. It felt good to be respected by her sisters, but sometimes, she’d love to just take a long break and let them make the important decisions for a while. She hadn’t taken a real vacation in years. As her parents had begun to slow down and make numerous mistakes, she’d taken the helm and worked endlessly to stave off any disasters. By the time her parents felt it was safe to finally leave, Avery had transitioned to director, adviser, and everything in between for Sunshine Bridal.
She pushed aside the thought and mentally shrugged. She loved her job and rarely bitched. It was only the beginning of April, and the burgeoning wedding season had just begun. For the next six months, there’d barely be time to breathe, let alone try and analyze the unspoken change in dynamics she sensed with her sisters.
She offered a smile. “You’re right. Let’s skip the rundown and call it a night. Bella, did you need help with Zoe tomorrow?”
“No, she’s got a birthday party, and Daisy’s taking her afterward for a playdate.” Daisy was a close friend of the family. She’d been pregnant the same time as Bella, and they’d raised their daughters together.
“Good. Hey, T, want to have dinner and go over the résumés for the new hires? I culled the best but would love to have a second opinion before I begin calling them in for interviews. We need to be prepared if we’re losing Gabe as an assistant soon.”
Her youngest sister slid off the couch and scowled. “No.”
Avery blinked. “Why not?”
“Because I’m not working tomorrow, psycho. I have something called a date. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
Used to Taylor’s sarcasm, she ignored the sting and tried to be nice. “Oh, with who?”
“Just a guy I met at a bar. No one important.”
“Do you want to meet for drinks before your date? It won’t take long.”
Taylor groaned, shaking her head and heading toward the door. “No. I want to spend the time prepping to look hot and not thinking about work on my one lousy day off. You should try it sometime. Does wonders for your personality.”
“Really? I’m not seeing the evidence,” Avery said innocently.
Bella giggled, but took up the defense. She was the peacekeeping middle child and loyal to her role. “T’s right. Once the high season hits, you won’t be able to have much fun or socialize. Go do something crazy, Avery.”
Annoyance flashed. She had no time for crazy. Her schedule was crammed, her phone buzzed nonstop, and even her sleep was disturbed by crazed brides and grooms who had midnight panic attacks and figured their wedding coordinator was the perfect person to talk to.
She knew Taylor wasn’t committed to the business long term, and Bella had her daughter to care about, but ganging up on her because she wasn’t dating or doing reckless things was not cool. Was she the only one who cared that the family business needed to come first? That everything their parents had worked for and cultivated was important? Fun could come later, when their bank accounts were fat and they had solidified themselves as the premier wedding planners for the Jersey shore—not just Cape May. Yes, they’d achieved some success, but there was always a competitor ready to take over. They needed to be consistently sharp and on their game. The only way to accomplish this was by working their asses off, and that meant missing an occasional day off.
She opened her mouth, then firmly shut it. No. She wouldn’t go on a tirade when they were tired and cranky. Best to attack it in the brightness of the morning, after a few cups of coffee. “I am,” she said brightly. “This meeting is adjourned. I’m getting my ass to bed. Personally, I think that’s enough crazy from me.”
She marched past her sisters, the first in line to leave and not even checking to see if the front door was locked behind her.
Yeah. Take that crazy.