The Encore Bride - Chapter 1




 
Any woman who has been previously married.

Chapter One

Six weeks before the Heather Braxton and Brandon Moore wedding

Jenny Landon hurried through Blue Sky Rescue, searching for the kennel of an ailing Yorkshire terrier. An associate had called her from the private Minneapolis animal shelter where she served as a volunteer, voicing concerns that the dog appeared to be depressed and succumbing to “Broken Heart Syndrome.” The female terrier had shut down, refusing to eat or drink as it huddled in its pen, crying for its owner.
She jogged along the row of kennels, tuning out the thunderous clamor of yapping canines ricocheting off the cinderblock walls like the roar of an excited mob. In the center of the row she found the right kennel and peered through the chain link door. The toy-sized terrier lay curled up on the cold cement floor next to a worn blanket with its head down and its eyes closed. Her heart skipped a beat. Had the dog gone to sleep...or worse?
She unlocked the door and entered the kennel, hoping the little dog known only as “Shrimp” would respond to her.
What kind of special idiot would name his dog Shrimp? she thought angrily as she set down her purse and dog sling then lowered herself next to the still body of the steel blue and tan terrier. The same kind who would abandon the poor animal and leave it here to die.
“Hello there,” she said in a soft, gentle voice. “Don’t be frightened. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The little dog didn’t respond.
Jenny drew in a deep breath as her heart caught in her throat. Am I too late?
“C’mon, sweet doggie, open your eyes for me,” she said then paused, waiting for the dog to react. “I know you’re upset because you don’t understand why you’ve been left here and you want to go home. I would, too, if I were you. This place must be scary for a little girl like you.” The dog still didn’t respond. “Do you want to come home with me, Shrimp?”
At the mention of its name, the dog began to cry. The animal’s pitiful howl wrenched Jenny’s heart, bringing tears to her eyes, but gave her the confirmation she so desperately needed.
Slowly, she moved her hand along the floor. “What’s the matter, baby? Are you upset because you miss your owner?” She stopped, her fingers resting close to Shrimp’s black nose. Shrimp opened her dark-rimmed eyes and gave Jenny a wary stare, but didn’t move. Jenny took a chance, hoping the dog wouldn’t snap or bite, and raised her hand, slowly stroking the long, thick hair between the terrier’s ears with her fingertips. Instead of enjoying the interaction, Shrimp began to shiver.
“You’re okay,” Jenny continued in a soft, soothing voice. She’d worked with her share of homesick pets, but had never encountered a case as bad as this. “You’re safe with me.”
She spent the next ten minutes calming the dog by speaking in a non-threatening manner and stroking the dog’s thick, glossy fur.
“Is she coming around?”
The concern in the girl’s voice prompted Jenny to look up. Patti Reeves, a friend and fellow volunteer, stood on the other side of the kennel looking in. The teen wore black jeans and a light blue polo shirt bearing the shelter’s emblem of a full sun with the words Blue Sky embroidered in red. Her short brown hair curled softly around her oval face.
“She’s a little better,” Jenny replied. “At least she’s not shaking now.”
Patti opened the door and stepped inside. “Are you going to take her home?”
Jenny nodded and pulled a package of doggie treats from her pocket. She wanted to take Shrimp straight to her place to introduce the terrier to her other animals and help the dog adjust to yet another new environment, but she’d agreed to meet her sister for lunch—and she was running late—so she and Shrimp would have to take an unwanted detour first.
She sighed, regretting she’d let Heather talk her into attending that bridal show and fashion luncheon. She had nothing in common with brides or weddings. Been there, done that, then her marriage had ended in tragedy. So much for happily ever after...
Patti smiled with relief. “I figured you would take Shrimp so I grabbed the paperwork for you.” She held up the pages. The paperwork amounted to a short contract and a personality profile for the dog that needed filling out within the next five days based on her observation. The shelter staff would summarize the profile and upload it to their website along with Shrimp’s photo to attract potential adopters.
Jenny looked up again. “Where did this one come from?”
“We got a batch on death row from one of the kill shelters in Texas.”
A “batch” for this shelter typically meant up to twelve dogs. Shrimp had escaped death and ended up at this shelter after Blue Sky Rescue sent a specially equipped van to transport her and her companions from a non-profit organization that rescued and distributed large shipments of animals from kill shelters in other states. No wonder Shrimp had emotional issues! Jenny could only imagine what the poor dog had endured.
Jenny’s phone blared as she grabbed a dog treat from the bag and placed it under Shrimp’s nose. The dog sniffed it, but didn’t touch it. “Come on, sweetie, give it a try.”
Patti pointed toward the noise coming from Jenny’s purse. “Aren’t you going to answer that?”
“No,” Jenny said, intent on convincing Shrimp to eat. “I’ll call the person back.”
All Heather wants is to lecture me anyway...
“My shift ends in five minutes.” Patti offered the papers to her. “I need you to sign the contract so I can hand it over to Emily on my way out.” Emily, the adoption coordinator, had set up a file on Shrimp and would facilitate the adoption process when the time came.
Jenny shoved the personality profile into her black leather purse then grabbed a pen and scribbled her signature on the contract. “Here,” she said and shoved the document toward Patti, then thought better of it and snatched it back. “Wait, I need to fix something.” She crossed out Shrimp in the ‘name’ field and wrote “Princess.”
Patti took the contract and scanned the change. “Princess, huh? If anyone can convince her to live up to her new name, you certainly can. You have an amazing ability to communicate with animals.”
Jenny shrugged. “I guess it’s because I know what it’s like to hurt so badly that you don’t want to go on.”
She’d been fostering animals with emotional issues for Blue Sky Rescue for the past two years, ever since her husband’s sudden death had left her bereft and alone. Reaching out to pets in need had given her great comfort. Their unconditional love filled the gaping hole in her soul that Adam’s passing had created.
“Thanks! Good luck with Princess!” Clutching the contract in her hand, Patti waved goodbye with it and left the kennel.
Jenny turned her attention back to Princess and smiled with relief as the dog tentatively licked the bite-sized treat. Princess, wholly unaware of her new name, suddenly swallowed it whole and looked up, her dark liquid eyes watching Jenny with a sorrowful look.
“Come on, baby, we’re going for a ride.” Jenny opened the sling, sliding it next to the dog. “Now, don’t be afraid,” she said soothingly as she picked up the terrier and deposited it inside the thick fabric. Princess began to yelp, prompting her to quickly tuck the dog inside and stand up, lifting the sling at the same time. “See, that didn’t hurt, did it?” She slipped the strap over her head to position the dog against her chest, snatched her purse and left the kennel.
Her phone began to ring again.
“I’m on my way, Heather,” she said as she answered the call and pressed the phone against her ear. “I’ll be downtown in a few minutes.” Well, maybe a few minutes plus twenty...
“You were supposed to be here an hour ago! We planned to look at dresses,” Heather snapped. “Now I’ll have to do it by myself. Really, Jenny, you’ve known about this event for weeks. Couldn’t you have made the effort to be on time?”
Jenny pushed open the shelter’s main doors and squinted as she burst into the bright April sun. “I said I’m coming! I had a slight emergency, but I will be there in time for the luncheon and the fashion show. I promise!”
Heather made a frustrated humph followed by a loud sigh. “You’d better, Jenny. I’m counting on you.”
“Okay, okay, see you soon...”
She tossed her phone back into her purse and slipped on a pair of designer sunglasses as her ankle boots crunched on the gravel parking lot. The warm breeze lifted her long, thick hair off her shoulders and swirled it around her face. The beautiful spring day should have elevated her spirits, but the thought of revisiting old wounds dampened her soul like a heavy cloud.
I’d rather go home and clean Jackie Boy’s litter box than attend Heather’s boring, over-priced dog and pony show.
But she’d promised her sister she’d go so she couldn’t back out. Heather had spent seventy-five dollars on her fashion show/luncheon ticket and it would be downright mean to be a no-show. Still, the thought of walking through the massive convention center with wall-to-wall wedding planners, dress designers, reception and honeymoon vendors made her stomach lurch.
Every woman believes a fairytale wedding is the perfect beginning to a lifetime of happiness and treasured memories with the man of her dreams.
She reached her blue Chevy and pulled out her keys, pressing the remote to open the doors.
But dreams don’t last...
Jenny jerked open the door and slid into the driver’s seat, making room for the sling containing her precious cargo. She tossed her purse onto the passenger seat and shoved the key into the ignition.
One day when you least expect it, everything you take for granted can be taken away from you…
Suddenly, that horrible day flashed through her mind, stealing her breath and stinging her eyes with a rush of tears. The day that Adam left this world he took her happiness—and her heart with him.
***
Jenny stood next to a glass counter of a cake vendor at the “The Ultimate Wedding” show in the Minneapolis Convention Center and stared at her floor map while Princess slept in the fold of her sling, safely tucked out of sight. Frustrated, Jenny turned the letter-sized page this way and that, trying to find her location as she tuned out the noise around her. The polished, baritone voice of Frank Sinatra echoed through the cavernous exhibit hall, crooning a romantic song about dancing “cheek to cheek.” Women of all ages, sizes and shapes filled the venue like a swarm of bees, laughing and chattering as they browsed dozens of galleries, shopping for everything from wedding invitations to honeymoon packages.
“I can’t even find my current location, much less the fashion show,” she grumbled as she leaned against the counter, taking care not to disturb the multi-tiered trays of pastel-frosted cupcakes displayed for complimentary tasting. The sugary-sweet aroma filled her nostrils, tempting her to sample one, but she didn’t have time. The luncheon started at noon, giving her exactly fifteen minutes to find the venue and join her sister.
She looked up, scanning the area for signage, but couldn’t see through the dense crowd. Luckily, a young woman passed wearing a banquet server’s uniform of black slacks, white shirt and a long black apron.
“Excuse me,” Jenny said, walking swiftly toward the woman before she got away. “I’m trying to find the Queen’s Court Fashion Show. Can you point it out on this map?”
“I can do better than that. I’ll show you,” the young woman said in a friendly tone. “Just follow the carpet past the gown gallery.” She pointed toward a wide, ruby-colored runner. “Keep going until you see the Venus de Milo fountain. The entrance to the show is just past that point. You can’t miss it. Got that?”
“Um...sure.” Not really, but I’ll give it a try... “Thanks.”
Jenny headed toward the red runner, repeating the directions under her breath as she came upon the gown gallery, a stunning collection of designer bridal gowns arranged on shapely mannequins in a large circle. The carpet curved to the left and she nervously continued on, making her way past make-up artists giving demonstrations, a winery offering sparkling wine samples, a jewelry counter displaying diamond tiaras and many more. Eventually, she came upon the fountain and looked for the entrance to the fashion show. Just beyond the statue, she saw a sign for the event with a large arrow pointing toward a large tent. Walking swiftly, she made her way toward a wide, arched opening draped with white tulle, miniature yellow roses and clear mini-lights.
“Excuse me!” A female voice trilled as she sped past the host stand. “Excuse me!”
Breathless, Jenny stopped and turned around.
A short, dark-haired woman wearing oversized tortoiseshell glasses pinned her with a disapproving stare. “May I help you?”
Jenny backtracked to the host stand. “I’m here for the luncheon.”
“May I see your ticket, please?”
No can do, lady. Heather has the tickets.
“The reservation is for two under Braxton, Heather Braxton,” Jenny replied sweetly. She hoped the mere mention of her sister, a popular local celebrity, would convince the woman to let her pass, but instead the woman pursed her lips, clearly not impressed.
“This event is sold out. I must see your ticket to allow you inside.”
 “I merely went to the ladies’ room,” Jenny said, feigning innocence. “I need to get back to my table. The luncheon is about to start and—”
“Your ticket, PLEASE!”
Exasperated, Jenny exhaled a tense breath and moved closer, standing nose-to-nose with the ticket “queen.” She had to get into that luncheon and find Heather’s table now. It was time to resort to Plan B.
If all else fails, act like a diva.
“I paid a lot of money to attend this event. If my soup gets cold because you’ve detained me, I’m going to complain!”
Startled by the shrill tones, Princess poked her head out of the sling and looked around. The dog’s puppet-like appearance startled the woman, causing her to pull back with a gasp. “Animals are not allowed in the dining room,” she said with finality as she quickly regained her composure.
“Yeah, well this is a special needs dog,” Jenny shot back, ready to do some serious sparring. Nobody picked on her pooch and got away with it.
But the woman abruptly changed her tune. “Oh. That’s no problem then. We can accommodate your disability or whatever special need you have.”
“I’m not the one with a special need.” Jenny pointed to the shivering canine. “It’s my dog.”
The woman stared, her mouth gaping as though she couldn’t quite grasp the situation.
A small group of women suddenly appeared and ambushed the host stand, talking at once as they fired questions about their gluten-free meal choices.
“Have a nice day!” Jenny tossed over her shoulder and sprinted away while the newcomers kept the woman distracted. She passed under the tulle arch and entered a walled tent in solid white. She hesitated at first, taken in by the sheer opulence of the setting.
The room resembled a small, but elegant, wedding reception. In the back of the room were long banquet tables covered in white Damask tablecloths and low-hanging chandeliers separated by tall vases filled with white roses, peonies and Phalaenopsis orchids. As she walked into the room, she noted all the tables were set with silver-rimmed china, ornate flatware and delicate crystal stemware. Between the place settings were more flowers in small vases.
To her left were round tables and to her right were smaller, square tables, all decorated in the same lovely “tablescape.” The scene brought back a poignant reminder of the day she and Adam had taken their vows. Their wedding reception had been about the same size.
Bits and pieces flashed through her mind: how happy he looked in his gray tuxedo as he held up a Champagne flute to toast their marriage. How his green eyes had danced with merriment every time his gaze met hers. How his thick locks of curly auburn hair looked like they could use a good combing, but his tousled bad boy exterior was one of the things about him she loved the most...
Pushing the image out of her thoughts, Jenny squared her shoulders and swallowed hard to keep from bursting into tears. This is exactly why I didn’t want to come here today and why I won’t be in Heather’s wedding. It will bring back too many memories.
She quickly scanned the room to take her mind off her troubling thoughts. Off to one side, she saw group of well-dressed ladies admiring the four-tier wedding cake and an ice sculpture of a swan, but her sister wasn’t among them.
Where was Heather?
Another group of women clustered around a small table situated near the stage suddenly broke out in laughter. Jenny heard her sister’s voice and realized Heather had been in plain sight all along. Heather’s career as a local news anchor had turned her into a hometown celebrity, making her the center of attention everywhere she went. Sitting at the table surrounded by ardent followers, she smiled and graciously entertained them in her aqua designer suit and white silk blouse.
When they were younger, people often mistook them for twins. She and Heather both were short, petite, blonde and blue-eyed, but Heather’s blonde hair held a reddish tinge while hers had golden tones.
“Thank you all for stopping by. It’s been wonderful talking with you. Enjoy the fashion show!” Heather said to her admirers, politely and smoothly dismissing them once she saw Jenny walking toward the table. The women, not affronted in the least, said goodbye and returned to their seats.
How does she do that?
“Well, it’s about time,” Heather snapped, dropping the celebrity façade as she approached.
“I promised I wouldn’t be late for the luncheon.” Jenny put her hands on her hips. “Hey, I’m five minutes early.”
“And what are you wearing?” Heather made a point of inspecting Jenny’s red ankle-length chinos, suede ankle boots and tailored white blouse.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
Heather smacked her lips. “This is a fashion show, not a garage sale.”
Jenny resisted the urge to laugh, a typical response to her sister’s criticism. When they were kids, she loved to snicker at Heather and make her mad. Nowadays, she kept it to herself.
A tall waiter, looking like a classy penguin in a black and white uniform rushed over to pull out her chair. Once Jenny was seated, he took the folded napkin on her plate and shook it, laying it flat across her lap. “Would you care for a glass of wine, perhaps?”
Jenny smiled but shook her head. “Iced tea will be fine, thank you.”
The waiter left and Heather resumed scrutinizing her outfit. “Where did you get that ugly purse? It’s horrible!”
“It’s not a purse, it’s a dog carrier.”
Heather’s face blanched. Quickly composing herself, she glanced around, presumably to make sure no one had overheard. “A what...”
Jenny pulled back the brown fabric and Princess sat up, sniffing the edge of the table.
“I can’t believe this. You’re embarrassing me!” Heather reached over and tried to shoo the dog back into her carrier, but Princess stayed put, her ears perked. “You and your pound puppies. When will you grow up, Jennifer? You’re thirty-three going on thirteen. You know very well you’re not supposed to bring that…that hairy thing in here.”
“Well, I just did.”
The waiter delivered their first course, a cup of shrimp bisque and tactfully ignored the uninvited guest at their table.
Jenny sipped the tangy soup and changed the subject. “I can’t believe you’ve set your wedding date for the first week of June. That’s only six weeks from now. Do you realize how much planning you have to do?”
Heather nodded and took a sip of her cucumber water, letting her soup get cold. “I’ve got two full-time wedding planners working on it.”
“What’s the hurry?”
Heather gave her a dreamy smile. “We’re in love.”
Heather and her fiancé, Brandon Moore, performed the ten o’clock news together on a local television station. The entire Minnesota viewing area knew of their off-camera romance and the gossip columns had been speculating on the wedding date for months. Now that Heather and Brandon had finally announced it, their ratings had blasted through the station’s roof.
“My wedding planners had to pull a lot of strings to arrange our engagement dinner at the restaurant we wanted on such short notice.” She sighed. “I’m glad we were able to book it, but I have so much to do before tomorrow night.” Heather’s four-carat, heart-shaped diamond sparkled under the glow of the chandelier as she picked up her water glass. “I expect you to be there on time.”
Just say it...
“Heather, about the wedding...I really think you should find another bridesmaid.”
“Jenny, don’t start that again.” Heather put down her spoon and pushed her shrimp bisque aside. “You’re my only sister and now that Mom and Dad are both gone, all we have is each other,” she said softly. “Of course, you’re going to be in my wedding. I can’t imagine it any other way. And you’re not my bridesmaid. You’re my maid of honor.”
“I just don’t think I’m ready yet. I’ve been having—”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Heather argued. “Yes, you are. You’ve been through a difficult period, but you’re strong.” She placed her hand over Jenny’s. “You’re doing great, Sis. Stay positive.” Heather cringed. “And get that dog’s tongue out of your soup! That’s gross!”
But Jenny merely gave Princess an affectionate pat on the head as she moved the dish away. “No, that’s good. Getting her appetite back means she’s starting to come out of her depression.” Jenny pulled a ribbon from the flower arrangement on the table and used it to gather the long fur on the dog’s head into a loose top knot. Then she fed Princess a nugget from her bag of treats.
After that, the conversation steered toward less controversial topics: Heather’s latest shopping trip, Heather’s house-hunting expeditions, Heather’s wedding preparations and Heather’s quest for the perfect honeymoon. Jenny pretended to listen, but kept an eye on the clock on her phone, desperately waiting for the event to end. Thinking of Adam and their wedding had dampened her mood. Though she did her best not to show it, all she wanted was to go home, away from having to smile and act as though her life had not fallen off a cliff.
The fashion show commenced after their waiter served them coffee and dessert. Jenny and Heather oohed and ahhed as pencil-thin models strutted around the room, giving everyone a close-up look at the latest trends in designer bridal dresses.
The last model approached their table wearing a strapless gown in ivory silk with a sheer cape and elbow-length gloves. She carried a huge bouquet of blush roses and ivory peonies with a rope of faux pearls wrapped around the stem.
“That bouquet looks heavy,” Jenny remarked as the model walked away.
“Heavenly, yes...” Heather replied as she made notes on her program. She looked up. “I almost forgot to tell you, Brandon’s best friend, Luke McCarran is going to be the best man. We’re seating you next to him at the engagement dinner and I expect you to be on your best behavior.”
Oh-oh. He must be a doozy if Heather has to lecture me about him beforehand.
Jenny stared warily at her sister. “Why are you hassling me about being nice to this guy? What’s the problem? Is he a dog hater or something?”
Heather gave her a stern look. “He’s a widower, like you, and he’s also going through a tough time right now.”
What was this? Heather and Brandon’s idea of Widow-Match.com?
“You and Brandon did that on purpose, didn’t you?” Jenny grabbed her phone and threw it into her purse. “It’s your sneaky way of trying to pair me up with Brandon’s best man, isn’t it? Well, I’m not falling for it!”
Heather kept her expression neutral. Heaven forbid that any of her adoring viewers would see her create a scene in public, but even so, her soft voice bordered on murderous. “You’re being ridiculous, Jenny! It’s a coincidence, that’s all. We simply thought you and Luke should get to know one another, since you both have key positions in the wedding.”
“You mean, you thought if you got us together, we’d be so preoccupied with commiserating over our dead spouses that I’d be too distracted to have second thoughts about being in your wedding!”
“That’s not true! The two of you have a lot in common. What would be so bad about making friends with Luke?”
Jenny wanted to compare funerals with Luke McCarran about as much as she wanted a colonoscopy. “I know you mean well, Heather, but stop trying to set me up,” Jenny said. “I’m not interested in finding another husband. I am never getting married again.” Sipping her purse over her shoulder, she pushed back her chair and stood. She needed to calm down before she embarrassed her sister more than she already had. “Excuse me. I’m going to the ladies’ room.”
The model turned her back to the crowd and tossed the bouquet. It flew high into the air.
“Look out!” A chorus of horrified gasps prompted her to look up. She saw it coming down, shooting through the air like a missile, but she didn’t have time to move out of the way.
Thunk.
The bouquet hit her in the face then dropped into her outstretched hands.
 ~     ~     ~

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