Friday nights at Enchanted Bridal were always crazy, but this was the first time that Penny Blake found herself literally running from the room.
Looking up, she saw one of her bosses – Angie – standing in front of her.
“Oh, God…sorry,” she murmured. When Angie didn’t say anything and just continued to study her, Penny knew she needed to explain herself. “I…I um…I just needed to…”
“Pee? Do you need to get to the bathroom?”
“What?” Penny croaked slightly and then immediately cleared her throat. “Um…I mean, no. No, I don’t need to use the restroom.”
One perfectly-shaped brow arched at her. “What’s going on? Is something wrong? Did someone say something to upset you?”
Knowing there was no way to avoid this conversation, she let out a weary sigh. “You see that woman over there?” She motioned over her shoulder. “Long black hair, black skinny jeans, ivory sweater?”
“See the guy with her?”
Angie’s eyes widened for a moment before she gave a knowing smile. “The sexy, nerdy guy? Sure. What’s up? Is he an ex?”
“Damn. Now that is a shame because he’s really…”
“Yeah, I know. Trust me.”
“So he’s here with his fiancée and you’d rather not see him. Got it,” Angie said with a quick nod.
“Actually, that’s his sister. We used to be friends,” Penny said quietly even as she was eyeing the door to the dressing room. Tonight was one of Enchanted Bridal’s weekly fashion shows and she was wearing a wedding gown – so even if it wasn’t horrifying enough running into your ex-boyfriend, the whole looking-like-a-bride thing just made it even more awkward.
“Used to be? What happened?” Then Angie gasped. “Did she stop being your friend because you broke up with her brother? Was she pissed? Did she hate the two of you dating? Oh my gosh, I know what that’s like. I dated a friend’s brother and she did not like it one bit. We stopped talking. I wonder whatever happened to her…”
Clearly she wasn’t going to make the quick getaway she’d been hoping for.
“Eva never had a problem with Spencer and I dating. But over the years we just…I don’t know…drifted apart. I think things were a little awkward for a while, but we got over it.”
“And the whole drifting apart thing…?” Angie prompted.
Penny stared longingly at the exit and wished she had simply kept walking and let her boss follow her. Now she was stuck in a conversation she’d rather not have, all the while hoping Eva and Spencer didn’t see her.
Angie glanced over Penny’s shoulder. “So you really need to just go and hide out for a few, right?”
Penny nodded. “If that’s all right. I hate being a coward or shirking my responsibilities, but if I could just have a few minutes to…”
“Penny? Is that you?”
Angie’s face mirrored her own. A little shock, a little uh-oh.
But then she grinned. And if Penny didn’t like her so much she’d smack her because she had a feeling her boss knew exactly what was going to happen and purposely kept her from hiding.
Turning, Penny forced a smile on her face even as her heart kicked hard in her chest.
“I’m going to want details,” Angie whispered so only Penny could hear right before she walked away.
“Oh, my God! It is you! Hi!” Eva cried as she grabbed Penny in a fierce hug. “We saw you up on the stage and I couldn’t believe it was you!” Another tight squeeze. “It’s been years! Way too long!”
“Uh-huh,” Penny murmured, on the verge of gasping for air.
“What are the odds of running into you here? Oh my gosh!” And yet another tight squeeze.
Luckily, she wasn’t facing Spencer so she had a minute to collect herself and prepare for all the crazy feelings she got whenever he was near.
“Hey, Eva,” Penny said as they finally pulled apart. “It’s good to see you. How are you?”
“I’m good, I’m good! And I’m engaged!” she cried as she held up her left hand.
“Congratulations! When’s the big day?”
“Sooner than I planned,” Eva admitted. “Brett’s a Marine and he’s shipping out in three months so we moved up our wedding date. I’m hoping to find something off-the-rack that I love and be able to have a somewhat normal wedding.”
“I’m sure you’ll find something here,” Penny said pleasantly, still carefully averting her eyes from Spencer’s. “We have a large inventory for you to choose from and we do all of the alterations here on site so you won’t have to worry.”
“So you work here as a model?” she asked.
“Just on Fridays,” Penny replied and when Eva didn’t comment, she figured she needed to clarify more. “During the week I’m an assistant manager of the dress shop and then I help out with our weekly fashion shows.”
“That is so cool! It’s like getting to play dress up all the time – like we used to when we were kids, remember?”
Just keep smiling, just keep smiling…
With a soft laugh, she said, “I do.”
Crap. Had she really just said “I do” while wearing a wedding gown?
It was during one of those games of dress up that Spencer had first kissed her. She was six, he was eight and Eva had conned him into being the groom for their pretend wedding game. And ever since then, she’d been hooked.
On Spencer, not playing dress up.
“Hey, Penny.” As if sensing her wayward thoughts, Spencer finally spoke.
Making sure she didn’t show too much of a reaction, she turned to him and smiled. “Hey, Spencer. How are you?”
And damn. It was like a sucker punch to the gut just like it always was. He always had been her ideal man. Sandy brown hair, clear blue eyes and he still wore those wire-rimmed glasses that just totally worked for him.
She had to fight to keep herself from sighing dreamily.
“I’m fine,” he said, smiling slowly. When it broadened, it brought out his dimples and Penny had to force her attention back to Eva.
“If you’d like, I can introduce you to the owners and they can set up an appointment for you to come in and try on gowns. There isn’t a huge crowd tonight, so you might even be able to look at some now – if you have time, that is.”
Eva let out a little squeal of delight. “We totally do! Right, Spence?” Then she looked at Penny again. “My poor brother drew the short straw tonight to come with me. He’s only in town for a short time but no one else could come with me to the show so I convinced him it would be fun.”
Spencer chuckled before adding, “She sweetened the deal by paying for dinner, so…”
Unable to help herself, Penny laughed with him. “You should definitely get the good brother award – especially if she starts shopping now.”
Just then, one of Penny’s other bosses walked over. “Hey, Hailey!” Penny said, getting her attention. “This is Eva and she is a bride with a short timeline. Any chance we have some time for her to look at our inventory tonight and then get an appointment?”
With the serene smile Hailey was known for, she introduced herself and replied, “Of course! Eva, why don’t you come with me and we can talk about what you’re looking for?”
And just like that, Penny was standing alone with Spencer.
While wearing a wedding gown.
And feeling kind of foolish about it.
“So…” he began.
“You look great,” he said.
“It’s the gown,” she said, blushing.
But Spencer shook his head. “No. It’s not the gown.”
Damn. And just like that her knees were turning to jelly at his words. She was about to thank him when someone called her name. Looking over her shoulder, boss number three – Becca – was waving to her.
“I’m sorry but I need to go,” she said quietly. “It looks like someone’s interested in this gown.”
The disappointment on his face was clear, but he didn’t say anything. He merely tucked his hands into his pockets and nodded.
“It was good to see you, Spencer.”
And as she turned and walked away, Penny realized she didn’t feel the relief quite like she thought she would.
* * *
Spencer watched her walk away and wondered why he didn’t stop her and at least ask for her number or if she’d like to get a cup of coffee sometime. Then he sighed. You’d think after knowing each other for twenty years and three breakups that this wouldn’t be such a big deal.
But it was.
You didn’t forget a girl like Penny.
Looking around the massive showroom, he wondered what he was supposed to do with himself. He hadn’t paid attention to where his sister had gone off to and now he felt a little foolish standing alone in the middle of the room. He walked toward the main door and then made his way toward the dress shop. If she was looking at gowns, that would be where she was, he imagined. He walked by a tuxedo shop, a flower shop, a photography studio, and a small coffee shop. Pausing, he looked around and realized that almost all of the shops were wedding-related.
Who knew there was even such a thing as a bridal mall?
Sure enough, he spotted his sister talking to Hailey in the bridal shop. She smiled when she spotted him and then looked at him curiously.
“What?” he asked. “What’s the matter?”
He shrugged. “She had to get back to work, I guess. Someone called her over and she had to go.”
Eva frowned a little. “Well damn.”
“You know Penny?” Hailey asked. “I just thought you were asking her about her dress when I walked over.” She was a very sophisticated looking woman – blonde hair done up in some sort of sleek style and dressed in a stylish suit.
“We do!” Eva said a little too enthusiastically. “We’ve been friends practically since kindergarten, but we’d lost track of each other years ago. I was so excited to see her here tonight.” Then she smiled at Spencer. “Admit it, you were too.”
What was he supposed to say to that? Especially here with an audience. There was the urge to roll his eyes at his sister’s giddy tone, but he opted to reel it in. Luckily, he was spared from having to make a comment when Hailey spoke.
“Penny’s amazing. She’s my right-hand girl.” Then she turned to Spencer. “We haven’t been properly introduced. Hi, I’m Hailey.”
He shook her hand. “Spencer Buchanan. Eva’s brother.”
Hailey smiled brightly. “Aren’t you sweet for helping your sister out!”
He actually felt himself blush. “Yeah. That’s me. Sweet,” he said with a low chuckle.
“He’s the best,” Eva chimed in. “Seriously, I had no one to come with me tonight and Spencer took one for the team.”
Hailey looked at her quizzically.
“Well, Brett can’t come with me, now can he? And Mom is working the night shift at the hospital. Dad says he’s writing the check for everything so that means he doesn’t have to shop,” she explained with a small laugh. Looking at Spencer, she smiled sweetly before adding, “That just left you.”
“Somehow I doubt that. You probably had a ton of people to come with you. Bridesmaids or something,” he replied. “You just wanted an excuse to torture me.”
“That’s just a perk,” Eva said sassily before turning back to Hailey. “When is a good time to come in and try on gowns? And tuxes!” she quickly added. “The guys are going to need tuxes too!”
Spencer groaned. Wasn’t it enough that he was here tonight? Why did this have to get dragged into more outings to the wedding mall?
“If you saw any tuxedos that you liked tonight at the show, I can write them down and when you’re ready, we’ll let the sales staff in the tux shop know and have them pulled for you.”
“I didn’t even think to look at them,” Eva said with a pout. Then she looked at her brother. “Can you go and take a quick look, Spence? See if anyone’s still walking around in the showroom? I totally trust your judgement.”
The groan was louder this time. “Eva, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be looking for,” he protested. “And really, isn’t this something Brett should be doing? After all, he is the groom.”
“I know that, but if you help us get a head start, it would really save time. And you know you’re going to be one of the groomsmen so go. Please? Please just go and look and maybe get some information? I’m going to be at least another fifteen minutes with Hailey,” she went on. “Maybe flag down Penny and see if she can help you.”
Ah. Now he realized what his sister was doing and he had to admit, he kind of approved.
Not that he was going to tell her that.
Instead he let out a sigh of agitation, looked at his watch and then glared at her. “You said this wasn’t going to be an all-night thing.”
Good, she clearly believed him because she looked a little crestfallen at his lack of enthusiasm.
He let out another sigh for good measure and then said, “Fine. But fifteen minutes, Eva.” And as he turned and walked away he added, “And then you’re going to owe me dessert!”
Even though his words sounded firm, he was grinning. With a little pep in his step, Spencer headed back to the showroom and at the entrance he quickly scanned the room. He spotted Penny easily enough – her long wavy red hair tended to stand out no matter what – and for a minute all he could do was take in how beautiful she was.
They had often joked that when he’d kissed her as her pretend groom when she was six that they had sealed their fate.
And right now, he kind of believed it.
Because all he wanted to do was walk over to her in her wedding gown, kiss her and make her his. For good this time.
Whoa…that was a big decision to make after only seeing her again for three minutes!
“Can I help you with something?”
Spencer blinked and looked at the woman standing in front of him. She was the same one Penny had been talking to earlier when he and Eva approached her.
“Um…my sister sent me back in here to look at tuxes but…”
She smiled. “You have no idea what you’re supposed to look for, right?”
“I’m Angie,” she said with a smile. She was tall and had a mass of dark curly hair and a southern twang. He had a feeling she’d be able to not only help him find a tux, but kick his ass if he got out of line. She just had that sort of presence about her.
“Spencer,” he replied. “It looks like a lot of the models have already cleared out so…”
“Hang on. There are still a few and maybe I can flag down one of the guys to help you.” She looked around the room and then said, “Follow me.”
It didn’t take long for him to realize they were heading toward Penny and he said a silent prayer of thanks for whatever luck happened to be on his side tonight.
“Penny,” Angie said when they got closer, “Spencer needs help looking at some tuxes. I think Martin’s gone home already because he has a sick kid. You’ve done some temping for them. Any chance you could help him out?”
It was funny how Spencer could almost hear what Penny was thinking – how this was definitely not something she wanted to do. At all. But her smile never fell. He had to hand her that. But right now, he was kind of thankful that she was being put on the spot and didn’t seem to be able to say no.
“Um…sure. No problem,” she said pleasantly. Then she looked at Spencer. “Does Eva know what she’s looking for?”
“Not at all,” he said with a small laugh. “I think she just wanted time to look at dresses without me hovering and looking at my watch.”
“Have a good night,” Angie said with a grin and a wave as she walked away.
There was a bit of an awkward moment as they both just looked at each other and if it were up to him, he’d keep looking at those blue eyes all night.
“So…um…” he began and then realized he had no idea what else he was going to say. They stood there in awkward silence for a long moment.
“Tuxes,” Penny finally blurted out. “Um…” Then she looked down at herself and shook her head. “Kind of wish I wasn’t still walking around in this.”
Rather than agree or disagree, he held out his arm to her and said, “Come on. I may be dressed casually, but I think I can help you maneuver around like any of these guys in their fancy suits,” he teased.
“That wasn’t quite what I meant.”
But he held out his arm to her in a dramatic fashion, while giving her – what he hoped – was a dashing smile. He felt a little chivalrous and was pleased when she hooked her arm through his.
“You’re crazy,” she said softly, but she was laughing. It was a great sound. And for the next few minutes, they walked around the showroom while she pointed out different tuxedo styles and designers.
Honestly, he was only half-listening to the information. He had no idea there were so many options and none of it really appealed to him – he was more focused on the sound of her voice and the feel of her arm in his. It was nice. Familiar.
And yet a little new and exciting.
“Your future brother-in-law should come in and take a look at them himself but really, unless he’s looking for something extremely specific, any of these could work. Tell him the most important bit of information he’ll need to know is the time of day for the wedding.”
He stopped walking and looked at her. “That’s the most important piece of information?”
“There are different styles of suits and tuxes for different times of day. Plus, we’ll need to know how formal or casual the wedding will be.”
“Ah…so there’s really two important details you’ll need,” he teased again and smiled when she blushed. He was leaning in a little bit closer and could smell her perfume. It was a sweet scent with a hint of vanilla – just like he remembered.
Penny pulled back slightly and cleared her throat. “Um…yes. Yes, those two are really key in helping a groom pick out what he wants.”
They were at a standstill – literally – and when she slowly pulled her arm from his, he knew she was getting ready to leave. “So…”
“So…” she said at the same time and then laughed.
“Listen, I’m only here visiting for a few days with my folks, but I’d love to take you out for coffee or…something,” he said lamely. “Can we do that?”
When she didn’t answer right away and seemed to glance away, he knew she was trying to come up with an excuse to say no.
“It’s just coffee, right?” he asked quickly, nervously. “I’d just really like to sit and talk with you and catch up on what’s been going on in your life.”
“I don’t know, Spencer…”
“Maybe we can…”
“There you are!” Great. Eva was back. They both turned toward her and he immediately noticed the excited look on his sister’s face. “Oh good! You found her!” She practically skipped over.
Penny turned to him. “Oh…um…actually Angie – one of my bosses – asked me to help him look at some tuxes.”
Eva looked at Spencer and he saw a hint of annoyance in her eyes, but she quickly masked it. “So? Did you find anything we can tell Brett about? Any great looking tuxes?”
When he stammered and hesitated, Penny spoke up and shared the information she told Spencer earlier. “Tell Brett to call Martin at the tuxedo shop. Tell Martin I sent him and he’ll hook him up.”
Eva beamed. “Perfect! Thank you!” Then she looked at Spencer. “I know you asked for dessert, but I’m kind of psyched to get home and call Brett to tell him about all of this. Why don’t you and Penny go grab something? I’m sure you have a lot to catch up on!”
Smooth, he inwardly groaned. Real smooth. Could his sister be any more obvious?
Then he did something he wasn’t too proud of, but…desperate times called for desperate measures.
“I actually had just asked Penny to join me for coffee when you interrupted us,” he said smoothly and hoped his sister – who could be like a steamroller if you gave her a chance – would help convince Penny to accept his offer.
“You had?” Eva said excitedly. “That’s great!” She looked at Penny with her biggest and brightest smile as she took one of Penny’s hands in her own. “I can’t thank you enough for all your help tonight! I had a great talk with Hailey and set up an appointment with her for early next week!”
“That’s great, Eva. I know we’ll be able to find your perfect dress.”
The look on his sister’s face was of pure happiness. “Well, besides the great help with the dress and hooking me up directly with Hailey, you also helped me get out of dessert with Spencer!” Then she laughed. “Not that I didn’t want to have dessert – I totally did! – but I’m just so excited to fill Brett in on all the details so we can keep moving forward with our plans. There is so much to do to plan a wedding on such short notice - I had no idea! And if I don’t leave and do it now and get him on the same page, I fear we’ll lose momentum!”
He wondered if she had even stopped to breathe during that speech…
Before he knew it, Eva was hugging Penny hard while making her promise they could get together for lunch soon. Then she turned and hugged him while murmuring something about not messing this up before practically skipping toward the door. “Have fun you two!”
The room was noticeably emptier and all of the models were gone. They both looked around and Spencer couldn’t help but notice how it was only the cleaning crew milling around before he looked back at Penny. He couldn’t help the nervous laugh that escaped. You’d think by now, at his age, he would be beyond this kind of thing. The nerves. And this was Penny. They’d known each other for so long and shared so much, how could he possibly be nervous?
Oh yeah, because you’ve broken her heart a time or two, or…three.
* * *
“You have three minutes to give me the story of that sexy guy before I have to run,” Angie said as she began to help Penny out of the wedding gown. And if there was one thing she knew about this particular boss, it was that she was persistent. She wasn’t going to let up until Penny told her what she wanted to know.
“I’ve known Spencer and Eva since I was five. We were neighbors. Eva and I would play dress up every day after school and we went through a wedding phase. Spencer was the first boy I ever kissed,” she said and couldn’t help but smile because to this day she could still remember that day so clearly. “I was six, he was eight.”
“Okay, that is adorable…”
“We were pretending to get married and Eva demanded that we kiss and make it like a real wedding.”
“I know, right? I already had a bit of a crush on him, so it was perfect.”
“Loving where this is going…”
“Then he made a face and told me that kissing me was gross and I better not tell anyone that he did it.”
Angie laughed. “And that just ruined all the adorableness…”
“Talk about a mood-breaker, right?”
“I hope you slugged him.”
She shook her head. “Nah. I moved on and after that, Eva and I decided that playing wedding dress-up wasn’t our thing anymore and we moved on to being princesses.”
“I remember my princess phase…” Angie said with a happy sigh. “So, then what?”
“He asked me out when I was in the sixth grade and we dated for all of three months.”
“At that age, that’s practically a lifetime,” Angie commented.
Penny nodded. “It was. But we were young, and the age difference was kind of an issue. We didn’t have a lot in common – he was into academic clubs and activities and I wasn’t. He’s really smart – like crazy super smart,” she explained. “And I was just really immature. That’s what he told me at the time – I was a little too immature for him.”
“Well that’s sucky.”
She nodded again. “I know, but accurate.”
“So then what happened?”
“His dad got a new job – he was an architect – and it was a big deal. Big promotion for him. And they moved across town to a new house – a really big one in a very swanky neighborhood. Eva and I didn’t get to hang out as much and she started making new friends and…”
“You guys started drifting.”
“Yup.” Then she shrugged and stepped out of the gown and turned to help get it back on its hanger. Standing in her underwear, she continued the story. “The summer between ninth and tenth grade, Eva invited me over for a sleepover and of course, Spencer was there.”
“So he was getting ready for his senior year?”
Nodding, Penny zipped up the garment bag and turned to grab her jeans. “I spent most of the night talking to him instead of Eva – but that was because she was on the phone with her boyfriend,” she clarified. “Anyway, we talked and laughed, and I was still crushing so damn hard on him that when he kissed me, I was speechless.”
“A good kiss should leave you that way.”
“I agree, and it did,” she said with a sigh. “We dated that entire summer and I thought things were great but…I guess they weren’t. When school started we realized – again – how different we were and it just wasn’t working.” She slid her sweater on and then sat down on the dressing room bench to pull on her boots.
“You were in high school,” Angie commented. “What wasn’t working?”
“He was dealing with college applications and he was still involved in all of the academic and business clubs and by that point I was a cheerleader. He saw what I was doing as pointless and I saw what he was doing as boring.”
“Ah…I can see that being a problem. Total opposites.”
“It was and…we fought about it. He called me superficial and I called him…hell, something about him being boring and having no friends,” she said with disgust. The words were a blur, but she still remembered how much she had wanted to hurt him with them.
And she had.
And it didn’t feel nearly as good as she thought it would.
“Is this the first time you’re seeing him since then?” Angie asked, her eyes a little wide.
Standing up, Penny checked her reflection in the mirror and picked up her purse. “We saw each other at Eva’s graduation party, but other than that…yeah. This is the first time I’m seeing him.”
“Did you talk to him at the graduation party?”
“Um…yeah. I mean…sort of.” Her cheeks felt like they were on fire and she couldn’t bring herself to actually meet Angie’s gaze.
“Oh my God! Did you hook up with him at the graduation party?” Angie cried out and then quickly covered her mouth. “Sorry.” Then she repeated her question in a much lower tone.
Blushing, Penny moved in close and whispered, “Let’s just say we…did a little more than just talk.”
And oh boy had they, she remembered.
Spencer Buchanan was the one who got away. They just weren’t meant to be. And even as her cheeks continued to heat at the memory of what they had done that one night, Penny always regretted that it wasn’t enough to keep them together.
Or even keep in touch.
Yeah. That part had been a little awkward. Spencer had asked for her number, but she was getting ready to go off to college and didn’t see a point to taking things beyond…well, beyond. Seeing him now reminded her of just how much she wished she’d handled things differently. All the things. Every time.
“So what are you going to do now?” Angie asked as they stepped out of the dressing room. She was carrying the wedding gown and when Penny offered to put it away, she waved her off.
“It looks like I’m going to go and have coffee with him – thanks to Eva,” she murmured. If she didn’t know any better, Penny would think that the two of them had set her up. Eva had always said how she hated that Penny and Spencer couldn’t seem to get it together, but that was years ago. She needed to forget about the past and focus on the present.
The here and now.
After wishing Angie a good night, Penny gave herself a quick mental pep talk – It’s just coffee. And no matter what, do not give Spencer Buchanan the opportunity to break your heart again. You’re a good person with a lot to offer. Be strong. Stay strong. Your time with him is in the past and you can’t go back. Remember that.
And when she stepped out of the bridal shop and found Spencer waiting for her by the main entrance, she knew she was lying to herself.
She was never going to be able to forget about the past where he was concerned. He was a major part of it. And after seeing him again – even if it was only for coffee – she knew he’d be playing a major part in her current fantasies.
And her future ones.
With a steadying breath, she walked toward him. “So…where to?”
“Is that diner still in business? The one over by First and Main?”
She nodded. They used to go to that one a lot during their summer together. It wasn’t the closest one to their present location, but it was kind of nice that he remembered it. “Should I meet you there?”
“Oh…um…I thought you realized…”
Penny looked at him curiously.
“Eva was my ride so…”
It looked like not only was she having coffee with Spencer, but she was driving him home as well.
Then he smiled at her until those dimples appeared and it was official…
It didn’t matter that it was just coffee. She wasn’t sure her hormones would be able to stand it.