“Do I look okay?” Biting her lip, Claire stared at her reflection in the full-length mirror. The butterflies in her stomach were flying around in crazy circles, making it difficult to focus on the vision in white staring back at her.
“Okay? You look more than okay, sweetie. You look beautiful.” Nora McKinley appeared in the mirror, her brown eyes gleaming with pride and sparkling with unshed tears.
A queasy feeling tickled Claire’s belly. “Mom…”
“I mean it. You’re beautiful, inside and out.” Nora sniffled. “You’re the most wonderful daughter a mother could ever ask for, and I’m so very proud of you.”
Claire’s teeth sank harder into her bottom lip.
“Oh, sweetie, don’t cry. You’ll ruin your makeup.”
She hadn’t even noticed the moisture welling up in her eyes, but that did explain why her reflection was blurry all of a sudden.
She blinked away the tears and turned to face her mother, who looked gorgeous and elegant in a peach-colored empire-cut dress that stopped just below her knees. Nora’s auburn hair was pulled back in a neat chignon, and with her perfect complexion and naturally red lips, Claire’s fifty-three-year-old mother didn’t look a day over forty.
“What’s going on, Claire? Are you nervous?”
“Yes.” She gulped. “But that’s normal, right? People get nervous before their wedding, don’t they?”
”Of course. It’s a perfectly normal response,” Nora said in a gentle tone. “Lots of brides get jittery right before the ceremony.”
”I wish Nat was here,” Claire murmured.
Her mother let out a soft sigh. “I know you’re upset that Natasha couldn’t be here, but you can’t dwell on that. Do you want me to get Michelle? Your maid of honor should really be here to help you get ready.”
”No, it’s all right. I just…I think I need a moment alone. Do you mind?”
A wrinkle appeared on Nora’s forehead, but she didn’t object to the request. “Of course not.” She stepped closer and gently stroked Claire’s cheek. “Michelle and I will come get you when it’s time.”
The second her mother was gone, Claire slid down to the carpeted floor in a pile of white lace.
Was this normal? The nerves, the shaky hands and damp palms? When she was a little girl, she’d constantly fantasized about her wedding, imagined how elated she’d be when the big day finally came. Cold feet had never been part of the fantasy.
And neither had a full-blown panic attack.
The bodice of her dress suddenly felt too tight, making it impossible to breathe, and her hands were shaking so hard she had to dig her fingers into her thighs to still the erratic trembling.
Oh boy, this was bad. Heart racing, forehead dotted with sweat, palms tingling. Her wild gaze darted around the beautiful room, taking in the wood-paneled walls and expensive carpeting, the commanding fireplace and elegant furniture, the scent of money and leather hanging in the air.
Nothing about this felt right. She shouldn’t be getting ready in this fancy room. There shouldn’t be five hundred strangers in that ballroom waiting to watch her get married. And her best friend in the whole world should be standing up at the altar with her, not some random coworker Claire had been forced to ask because her groom refused to accommodate Natasha’s schedule. Since Nat went overseas for three months out of every year as part of a foreign-aid program run by the hospital where she worked as an ER resident, there had been no way for her to fly back to San Francisco for the wedding, which meant that Claire’s best friend of twenty-three years—hell, her only friend—couldn’t be her maid of honor.
Claire had been more than willing to push the date to the spring if it meant having Nat by her side, but Chris’s boss had sprung the Lavender Ballroom gift on them out of nowhere and Chris had insisted it would be rude to turn him down.
The thought slunk into Claire’s head like a stray animal, but she forced herself to shoo it away.
Chris hadn’t changed. He was just under a ton of pressure. His position at Lowenstein and Tate was stressful, and it didn’t help matters that half his paycheck went to help his mother. Stress like that took its toll on a man.
Does stress also turn men into pretentious, inflexible, judgmental strangers?
She pushed aside the mocking thought. Enough. She had to snap out of this. She’d fallen in love with Chris for so many reasons—his work ethic, his passion to help others, his dry humor.
He might be acting…different lately, but once his mother’s finances were in order and his workload eased slightly, he’d go back to being the man she’d fallen for.
A knock on the door derailed her internal train of panic and confusion. God, if that was Michelle coming to pretend they were best buds and that Claire hadn’t asked her to be maid of honor out of sheer pathetic desperation, then she was literally going to scream.
There was another sharp knock. “Claire, it’s Dylan. Can I come in?”
Crap. Dylan Wade was the last person she wanted to see right now. Actually, he was the last person she wanted to see anytime, but as his knocking became more persistent, she reluctantly walked over to the door and flung it open.
“What do you want, Dylan?”
“Listen,” he began, “I need to—holy fuck.”
The awe and embarrassment that tinged his voice caught her by complete surprise. “What?” she said warily.
Dylan stepped into the suite. His green eyes were glued to her, and the reverent expression on his handsome face was completely unexpected.
“Wow,” he breathed. “Claire, you look…wow…you look so beautiful.”
It took a few dumbfounded seconds for her to fathom that he wasn’t being sarcastic. Since he’d never looked at her with anything other than annoyance or scorn, his visible appreciation compelled her to glance at the mirror again and really study her reflection this time.
A different woman was looking back at her, a woman in a gorgeous satin-and-lace gown with a sweetheart neckline, full skirt and short train. Her auburn hair was arranged in long, flowing waves, slightly pulled back with tiny white flowers threaded through it. Her minimal, shimmery makeup gave her skin a radiant glow, and the heirloom diamond bracelet around her wrist caught the light and sparkled whenever she moved.
God, she did look beautiful.
The realization dimmed some of her panic. If Dylan, a man who disliked her, could appreciate the way she looked right now, then clearly she was about to knock her groom’s socks off.
“Thanks,” she said, keeping her gaze on her reflection.
“Um…” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, I came by because I needed to tell you…uh…”
The agitation in his normally confident tone had her turning to face him. Okay, weird. Dylan was shifting around as if he couldn’t get comfortable. His hands slid into the pockets of his black trousers, then back out. His black dress shoes tapped the carpet a couple of times, and then he edged backward toward the door, his expression downright pained.
For the first time in three months, Claire was able to look at Dylan without blushing or visualizing the intensely erotic scene she’d witnessed between him and—nope, not going there.
She shoved the memory right out of her head and focused on the odd tension thickening the space between them.
“What’s going on, Dylan?” Fear darted through her. “Is everything okay? Is Chris all right?”
“He’s fine,” Dylan said quickly.
“Then what is it?”
He shuffled awkwardly, raking a hand through his short blond hair.
“Look,” he started, his voice a tad hoarse, “Chris is…um…aw shit, there’s no easy way to say this, okay? So I’m just going to do it, and I want you to know that doing this brings me no pleasure. You and me…we don’t really get along, and then there was that whole visit thing and…you know, what you saw at my place…which you never brought up again, and I’m really grateful for that, by the way—”
“Oh for the love of God,” she interrupted. “Quit babbling and say what you came here to say.”