Jacob Tasker had broken Daisy Bell's heart years before. Now his failing grandmother had fixated on the delusion that Jacob and Daisy were engaged, and was planning their wedding. So Jacob appealed to Daisy to pretend they were still a couple. For Grandma Eunice's sake, of course.
Maintaining the charade was the toughest challenge of Daisy's life. Because Jacob's touch still made her heart ache with longing. But Eunice stubbornly clung to her delusion, so what was Daisy to do? It seemed odd, though, that except for this one aberration, Eunice's mind seemed perfectly fine....
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Harlequin Enterprises, Limited
August 01, 2012
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Excerpt from A Week till the Wedding by Linda Winstead Jones
"Those women on Crime Stoppers never have good haircuts. Have you noticed? Maybe if they didn't look so unkempt they'd make better choices. You know, get a job, marry a decent man. Just look at those bangs, bless her heart." Sandra Miller was a talker; Daisy never had to work to make conversation when Sandra was in the chair getting her hair done.
Daisy paused, scissors in hand, and glanced over the top of her client's head to catch a glimpse of a mug shot on the twenty-inch television that was mounted on the wall. Bell Grove, Georgia, was a small town off the beaten path, north of Atlanta. They didn't have their own television station, but they picked up the Atlanta stations. "Yeah, those bangs are pretty bad."
"A woman just can't feel good about herself if her hair looks that awful." Sandra gestured to the television. "I swear, I'd be tempted to use drugs myself if I had bangs like that. She has to have something to dull the pain."
Another mug shot was flashed on the screen. "Oh, dear," Sandra said softly. "Her problems go so far beyond bangs I don't know where to start. Don't they sell conditioner in Atlanta? And what color is that, exactly? I have never seen a box of Miss Clairol with orange or pumpkin stamped on it." In the mirror, Sandra caught and held Daisy's eye. "You know, you could do a lot of good, if you were of a mind to help those poor, unfortunate women. You can't overestimate how important hairstyle is to a woman's confidence."
Daisy laughed. "Sorry, Sandra. My hands are full enough without adding in the occasional trip to the Atlanta jail to give beauty advice."
Yes, her hands were more than full enough. Daisy was the sole proprietor of Bell's Beauty Shop and Small Engine Repair. She had no employees, though her sister Mari--the youngest of the three Bell girls--came home on the weekends to help with the repair aspect of the business. Mari was in junior college, and Lily had recently started a new job in an Atlanta art gallery. Lily didn't make it to Bell Grove as often as she had when she'd been a student. These days her weekends were taken up with the new job and new friends and settling into her new apartment.
While Daisy missed seeing her sisters on a regular basis, it wasn't like she didn't have enough to do. In addition to the business, which kept her busy enough since it was Bell Grove's only beauty salon and repair shop, she did volunteer work. On Mondays, when her shop was closed, she delivered meals to a number of housebound residents in the county. Some were elderly, others were in bad health; a couple had just fallen on hard times and needed a little help. While she wasn't keen on the idea of inspiring prisoners to change their ways by providing free haircuts, she had spent more hours than she could count spiffing up the hairstyles of those who didn't get out much. The service--the meals, not the hair trimming and restyling--was sponsored by the Bell Grove Methodist Church, as was a food bank which Daisy also volunteered for when she could.
She gave some of these same people rides to town, when she wasn't working and they needed to go to the doctor--there was a grand total of one in Bell Grove--or the grocery store. There was just the one grocery store, too. Bell Grove provided all the necessary services; there just wasn't much to choose from. Anyone who wasn't happy with their limited selection could--and did--drive into Atlanta or one of the communities between Bell Grove and the big city.
Daisy didn't get out of Bell Grove often. Everything she needed was close at hand. She liked it here, and everything she needed was within reach. Well, almost everything.
Sandra asked about Lily and Marigold, and Daisy filled her in on all the latest news. As she did, her heart sank a little. Just a little. She tried not to let her sad reaction show. When their parents had been killed Daisy had stepped up and done what needed to be done. She'd put her life on hold, sacrificing her own plans to take care of her younger sisters. Lily and Mari had still been in school at the time, Lily in the county high school, Mari in the middle school. There had been no close relatives to take over as guardian to the younger girls, so that duty had fallen to Daisy. Now they were grown, they had lives of their own.
That was as it should be, right? But sometimes Daisy felt as if she was suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.
She never would've considered staying in Bell Grove and taking over her parents' businesses if they'd lived.
Her plans had been grander than that. A college degree--she'd waffled between physical therapy and elementary education and had finally decided on education--and a job in the big city. Marriage, babies, the PTA and Little League. Maybe her plans had not been grand, but they'd been hers. More than once in the past seven years she'd spent a sleepless night wondering where she'd be if that eighteen-wheeler hadn't crossed the center line. She would've finished college, gotten that job, made a life of her own. Would she have been as content with that life as she was with this one? Would things have turned out as she'd planned? She'd stopped asking those questions years ago. There was no way to know what that alternate life might've been like; there was no upside for her in "what-if?"
She liked her life just fine, and those old plans seemed so distant they might as well have been someone else's.
Daisy gave Sandra's new, shorter cut a good blow-dry with a round brush, touched it up with a spritz of hair spray and whipped off the purple cape that had protected her client's clothing. Sandra was happy with the new style, and had just begun to gush about how much slimmer her face looked with the new cut when the door to the shop opened. Daisy didn't have anyone scheduled for another hour. She'd planned to grab a sandwich as soon as Sandra left. But she did take walk-ins, and since business wasn't exactly booming she'd gladly skip lunch to squeeze in another haircut. Maybe someone was dropping off a small item for repair, though if that was the case...
That was as far as her thoughts wandered before the person who'd opened the door stepped inside.
Jacob Tasker, the biggest "what-if?" of them all, looked her in the eye the way he always had, with confidence in his steady gaze. Dark brown eyes, like strong black coffee, caught hers and held on. He was bigger than he'd been when she'd last seen him. Not in a bad way; he didn't have the beginnings of a gut, or jowls, or a double chin. All through college he'd bordered on skinny. He'd been wiry, at the very least. Since then he'd put on a few pounds of muscle, filling his expensive suit well.
Not only did that suit cost more than she made in a month, but no one wore a suit in Bell Grove unless A) They were Mayor or B) It was Sunday.
His haircut was expensive, too. There wasn't a single hair out of place, no misbehaving cowlick or split ends. He was recently well-shaven. Damned if he couldn't've just stepped out of an ad for expensive cologne or a ridiculously overpriced watch. And that smile...even though she could tell it was somewhat forced, the smile hadn't changed at all. That smile had captured her when she'd been fifteen and he'd been eighteen. She'd fallen hard. She'd doodled Mrs. Daisy Tasker on the inside cover, and numerous pages, of every notebook and journal she'd owned, with swirly hearts over the i in Daisy. At that time he'd been too old for her, and she'd never confessed her feelings to anyone, not even to her closest friends. He'd been her secret crush, her heart's deepest desire.
Four years later, when she'd been nineteen and he'd been twenty-two, they'd attended the same college and the three-year age difference was no longer an impediment. Since he'd taken a year off between high school and college, and he'd changed his major--twice--they'd even had some classes together. The smile had done her in again, along with other attributes she hadn't been able to even imagine at fifteen. That had been a blissfully happy time of her life; she'd lived in a fairy tale.
And a little less than two years later it had all fallen apart, and she'd been reminded that the original fairy tales always had a wicked twist at the end.
Crap. Daisy couldn't say she hadn't ever imagined seeing Jacob again, but in her fantasy she'd had time to put on something pretty and freshen her makeup. She'd been ridiculously happy; she hadn't missed him at all. In her daydreams she could barely remember what he looked like. She had no regrets, there were no "what-ifs?" On the other hand he'd been miserable, so very sorry he'd let her slip away. In her imaginings he had not aged well. Maybe there was a gut, or a softening of his features. Just enough of an unflattering change to make her glad that their relationship had ended when it had. Ah, fantasy.
But in real life she was wearing a minimum of makeup and a black smock over well-worn jeans and a sadly old Brooks and Dunn T-shirt. And he looked better than she remembered, more a man, harder. Sharper. She thought about Jacob too damn often. And he didn't look at all sorry. No, he looked as confident as always, as if he never had a single moment of doubt about any decision he'd ever made.
Not even leaving her.
He closed the door on the bright sunshine, said hello to her and to Sandra, who--thankfully--prattled about how long it had been since she'd seen Jacob, how she'd heard about his success, and how was California, anyway? She asked about his brothers and his cousins. He had plenty of relatives in the area, so that took a while. While the Bells had dwindled--only the three sisters remained of the founders of this small town--the Taskers had multiplied and flourished. You couldn't take two steps in the county without tripping over one of Jacob's cousins.
While Jacob and Sandra exchanged pleasantries, Daisy took a deep breath and tried to decide what she should say, when the time for her to speak arrived. Her hands fell to her thighs, where she wiped them on her jeans. Her nails weren't painted. She had sweaty palms. Great. He couldn't have called first? He couldn't have given her a little warning so she could brush up on her speech? How rude!
As Jacob and Sandra talked, the television news droned on, the announcer's words making no sense at all. Blah, blah, blah. Yada yada yada. The air conditioner whirred. Daisy was aware of every sound that filled the room, most specifically Jacob's voice. She'd always loved his voice; the timbre, the way she felt it in her spine.
She really should pretend that seeing him again didn't affect her at all, but it was probably too late for that. Her jaw had dropped when he'd walked in and she'd stared at him wordlessly for too long to pull off that lie. He'd probably noticed her wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans; he never had been one to miss much. She could just light into him and say all the things she sometimes wished she'd said. For a long while all the things she wished she'd said to him had kept her up at night. None of them were pleasant.
But when Sandra put cash on the front counter, waved at Daisy and left, and Daisy and Jacob were left alone, what she said was,
"What the hell do you want?"