THE SWEETHEART KISS
While the poor guy is rushed to the ER, Jess gets grilled by a gorgeous cop who’s not thrilled to learn she’s part PI and part pit bull. But he has to admit she’s highly observant . . . and he observes that she’s pretty hot, too.
The thing is, Jess was walking up the same aisle as the victim, and Sam suspects she was the real target. It’s more than professional duty that makes him want to protect her-if he doesn’t arrest her first for interfering in his investigation . . .
There was one thing guaranteed to get Jess Lucas through a wedding that she didn’t want to be in, with a bride she intensely disliked, and a headache that had spiked through her skull the moment she slipped the hideous bridesmaid dress over her head: Alcohol.
The crystal clear liquid called to her with a sweet siren song from within the bottom of her oversized tote bag. There had been speculation among her friends that Amelia Earhart— and aircraft—could be found in the tote along with Bigfoot and extinct dodo birds, if the right team of explorers took on the search. Laying that rumor to rest would have to wait until she finished soaking her throbbing brain with fermented potatoes and ethanol.
Jess was certain a quick dash into the changing room wouldn’t be noticed as the groom hadn’t yet taken his position at the altar. Maybe the clueless sap had wised up and was now making a run for the Ohio border.
No luck. She caught a glimpse of him talking to the minister and smiling. She didn’t know him well, but felt sorry for the guy. He was so dumbstruck by love that he couldn’t see past the big teeth and enhanced breasts to the character within his future wife.
But that wasn’t Jess’s problem. The ceremony was not to start for three minutes and she was quick, despite a slight buzz from previous liquor shots. Without any impediments to block her path, she could get to the bride’s room, down the 1.5 ounces of vodka left from a raid on the minibar during a trip to Vegas last summer, and be back in line before anyone noticed her missing. She just had to shake off groomsman number three.
She’d brought a variety six pack of those little booze bottles, knowing that in order to survive the wedding of Mandy Mae Smith—soon to be Jones—she’d need liquid courage.
Not much of a drinker, she’d managed to chug three bottles already, but her duties had kept her from the fourth.
The white crinoline along the bodice of the wide fifties-prom-dress inspired bridesmaid dress was already rubbing off the top layer of skin on her left arm pit. By the time the evening came to a thank-God-it’s-over close, she intended to be ripping drunk and naked with a groomsman in a vestibule closet somewhere. After all, wasn’t a single woman entitled to be cliché at least once in her life?
“Er, what?” Jess looked way up at tall groomsman number three,
Dodger Drake. Yes, that was his name. His fake tanned orange face grinned down from a foot above her, his teeth so white that she became convinced he ate, slept, and probably had sex while wearing teeth whitening trays.
“It’s time to line up,” Dodger said and his gaze dipped unapologetically to her modest cleavage pushed up under her chin by the bone-corset bodice of the dress.
Gawd, she hoped that Dodger was a nickname and not some sick joke his parents had heaped on their innocent baby to toughen him up on the playground.
By the way he was measuring her cup size, he was clearly angling to be her next sexual misadventure. Heck, her first sexual misadventure. She was too smart to jump into anything without weighing the pros and cons beforehand.
For the last several very long weeks, she’d been weighted down by gloom over a very serious health scare. After getting good news, she’d taken a look at her life and wasn’t happy with what she saw reflected back at her.
Outside of work, she’d been kind of going along without much purpose. Her social life was boring and she hadn’t had an adventure since she and her friends had been kicked off a bus and almost eaten by buzzards.
She was healthy now. It was time to start living.
Perhaps she should do something reckless.
She’d have to make a plan.
“Oh, okay,” she said and let him lead her into the line. Damn. The bottle would have to wait, she thought, as she tugged at the torturous gown. Really, who would choose mustard yellow corseted dresses with lime and red sashes for a wedding anyway?
Mandy, that’s who.
Dear lord, why had she agreed to this epic mess? Jess hated Mandy. Oh, they’d been friends once. Then Mandy had blossomed after getting her severe overbite corrected, become promiscuous during the last two years of high school, and slept with Jess’s boyfriend of two years, Darren.
A long-winded, weepy apology had tamped down Jess’s desire to kill her, and they’d left high school as frenemies. After all, by the time Jess found out about the cheating, Darren had already done it with half of the girls in their town over the age of sixteen. So what was one more, Mandy had said.
As if that made Jess feel any better.
Besides, the ex-boyfriend with the best friend relationship didn’t last much longer than the time it took for Darren to untangle Mandy’s lacy thong from his braces the night the cops found them parked behind the elementary school. His head had popped up and he was grinning like he’d won the lottery, with red lace snagged on silver metal.
He’d been an overeager virgin, saddled with a girlfriend who wasn’t ready to go past second base, and full of raging hormones. After Mandy, his new reputation as a stud had gained him a following of would-be-hoes who were ready to see if braces were indeed better than a vibrator on certain areas of the female anatomy.
And dear Mandy had spent their senior year in high school orally copulating her way through 25 percent of the males of the senior class.
Senior photos that year were particularly chipper. The young men had a lot to smile about.
This kind of behavior would lead psychologists to suspect childhood trauma or some sort of mental malady. But no, Mandy just liked sex. And she would have made a dent in the other 75 percent if not for that dreaded event called graduation.
So when the call from way out of left field came three weeks ago begging Jess to be part of Mandy’s big day, she had been unable to come up with an excuse quick enough to get out of it. So, here she was…bridesmaid number three.
But what ticked her off most was that Mandy was so happy with Chad Jones that it sickened everyone around her. If karma had blessed Mandy with a taste of her own medicine, Chad would be currently doing it with the maid of honor behind the pulpit instead of high-fiving his best man and heading to the front of the church with a bounce in his step. Not that she was bitter or anything, Jess reminded herself. High school was nine years ago. They’d all moved on.
Mandy had trotted off to college, become a lawyer, and was now marrying the man of her dreams. This ending was completely unfair to the good girls of the world.
Jess glanced up the aisle to the groom and wondered if he knew his soon-to-be-wife had questionable morals. Of course he did. He was grinning like a dope who had won a life-long ride on the easy train—easy being the key word.
Sloughing off envy, she promised to be happy for Mandy if it killed her. They had been close once.
The odds of the marriage making it past the five-year anniversary were nil. The last she’d seen of Mandy before she’d fled the bachelorette party two nights ago was the future bride heading into a bathroom stall with a well-endowed stripper named Chaz, and he probably wasn’t helping her look for a lost contact lens between her breasts.
“Do you think the marriage will succeed?” Dodger whispered, and for a second, Jess felt her cheeks warm. Was her skepticism that obvious?
“Of course it will,” she replied without much enthusiasm. It wasn’t nice to say negative things about a bride on her wedding day. “Why would you think otherwise?”
Dodger looked around and bent down. Some of his spray tan had rubbed off on his starched white tuxedo shirt. He smelled of beer and cigarettes.
“I slept with her two months ago,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. “This morning before we left the hotel, I saw her leaving Mr. Jones’s room, carrying her shoes.” Jess’s mouth dropped open.
“Mr. Jones? As in the father of the groom, Mr. Jones?” She glanced to the front of the church. The older but still handsome Mr. Jones was speaking to his half-his-age date, Chandi, and the girl was giggling.
What was it about weddings that sexually charged up some people?
Dodger grinned. “The same.”
Brushing aside that Dodger had also slept with Mandy, Jess frowned.
“Wait. I thought he was sharing a room with Chandi?”
Dodger tipped his head left and lifted his brows. “He is.”
It didn’t take her PI skills to figure that one out. Apparently, Mandy had upped her game.
For some reason, Jess found this funny. She squelched a laugh behind her hand. Suddenly, she didn’t need the last bottle of booze. This was going to be fun.
“Should we raise our hands when asked if anyone objects to the wedding? It sounds like intimate knowledge of the bride would qualify you as an expert, and she slept with my high school boyfriend. We both have good reasons to object.”
The guy chuckled. “Ouch. Chad slept with my college girlfriend. I say we let this play out.”
“They deserve each other,” she said and he nodded.
With a new appreciation of groomsman number three, she hooked her arm with his and smiled. “Agreed.”
The music started and off they went.
In front of Dodger, groomsman number two was shellacked and polished down to his gleaming fingernails. He hooked arms with the giggling Shelby, who looked up at him in a way that suggested she wasn’t wearing panties.
“I’ve been to three weddings this summer and I have to say, you’re the hottest bridesmaid so far,” Dodger said.
“Thanks.” Jess wasn’t sure if that was some sort of awkward come-on, or whether she wanted to take it as such. The man looked like an over-sized Oompa Loompa. But after surviving a recent cancer scare and deciding life needed to be lived to the fullest, she hadn’t yet ruled him out for the coat closet.
Sex was a distant memory. None of her recent dates had made her want to shave her legs or put on sexy panties. Maybe it was time for a no-commitments romp for fun.
Besides, he had a good sense of humor with an evil streak. She admired that in a co-conspirator.
“Save me a dance later,” she said and shot him a flirty look. At least she hoped it was flirty.
“Yes, ma’am. How can I refuse?” His response definitely held a sexual overtone. The way he returned his attention to her scooped neckline left no doubt that he had a coat closet all picked out for them. She just had to say yes.
Could orange be her new…something?
“Off we go,” said the elderly usher/uncle of the groom, shooing them out the open double doors.
The likelihood of her actually sneaking off to the coat closet with Dodger was slim, but he made her laugh and she did enjoy his company.
Except for Summer’s wedding last weekend, it had been weeks since she let herself have some fun. Now that she’d been given the all clear by the doc, the cloud of doom above her head was gone. Dodger couldn’t be the only single man at the wedding. Maybe she could find someone with more substance? Someone long-term? The possibilities were endless and she was seeing life through new eyes. It was time to get back to living.
The music swelled with the beginning notes of the wedding song as Jess stepped over rose petals and Dodger grinned back at the bride. Mandy kept her eyes averted from his.
It turned out that neither Jess nor Dodger—who was enjoying himself immensely—had to protest the marriage. They were steps away from the altar when a shout sounded from the back of the room and brought the processional to a halt.
“Mandy, wait! Don’t do this!”
Jess knew that voice. She flashed back nine years. It was the cold flush of the unfairness of life taking one last stab through her fourth and fifth vertebrae to kick her back to reality.
Darren, aka cheating scumbag high school boyfriend, had arrived to steal the bride. Figured.
The flower girl stopped and everyone swiveled in their chairs. Jess was halfway turned around, both disbelieving and shocked that he was still tangled up with Mandy after all these years, when a loud snap echoed through the old church, followed by a scream, and groomsman number two landed at her feet.