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Bride Needs Groom
By Wendy Markham

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 Bride Needs Groom

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Bride Needs Groom
By Wendy Markham
ISBN: 0446614548
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: Bride Needs Groom , by Wendy Markham

CHAPTER ONE


SEPTEMBER

"Champagne?"

Mia glances up from the open Louis Vuitton carry-on she's been fruitlessly searching for an emery board, thanks to the security officer who grimly confiscated her prized sapphire nail file at check-in.

"Would you like some?" A smiling female flight attendant is brandishing an open green bottle of fine champagne and a crystal flute.

All right, probably not Cristal-or crystal. But undoubtedly a fine vintage nonetheless, and the flute is glass. Definitely glass.

Glass beats the plastic glassware they use back in coach, as Mia recalls from her less-privileged past, and she greatly prefers champagne to weak coffee that isn't offered until somewhere over Indiana. Or Illinois. Or one of those Midwestern vowel-starting states that Mia has never seen in a closer proximity than twenty thousand feet. Which is absolutely fine with her, of course.

"Yes. I'd love some champagne. Thank you." Mia smiles back at the flight attendant, who compliments her on her simple tulle headpiece as she pours the bubbly.

"Where did you get it? I'm getting married next summer, and I still haven't found a veil I like."

Mia tells her the name of the Madison Avenue bridal salon where, in the last forty-eight hours, she bought everything from her white satin shoes to the corset that enabled her to effortlessly button the low-cut gown's snug and exquisitely beaded bodice.

"Oh, I've heard of that place. It's outrageously expensive, right?"

"Not necessarily." Not if one is worth millions. All right, it's her beloved elderly grandfather, Carmine Calogera, Jr., who's worth millions. But she's under his roof, on his payroll, and in his will. And she's going to do whatever it takes to stay there. Which is where the wedding gown comes in.

"I've heard you have to order more than a year in advance at that salon to make sure your gown is ready on time. Did it take forever for yours?" the flight attendant wants to know.

"Not really," Mia says, wondering how one defines forever.

"How many fittings did you have?" Not enough, she thinks, considering that the corset she was forced to wear beneath the too-snug bodice leaves little room to breathe properly.

"Um, I had a few fittings," she tells the flight attendant. Two qualifies for a few, right? And it doesn't matter that they were both held on the same day, in between mad dashes up and down the Avenue for Vegas-suitable clothing and wedding night lingerie. The woman doesn't need to know the nuptials haven't been in the works for months. Or even weeks.

"Well, you look beautiful. Cheers." The flight attendant's modest diamond engagement ring sparkles in the September sunshine streaming through the window as she hands the flute to Mia. "And good luck."

"Thank you," Mia says again, lifting her glass in a toast with her right hand, lest the attendant notice her left isn't even sporting a diamond. "Same to you."

Ah, champagne. Perfect! What else would a bride-tobe sip en route to her wedding?

The flight attendant smiles her way across the aisle to the next passenger, an attractive businessman who's been shooting curious sidelong glances in Mia's direction ever since she boarded.

She's been tempted to say, "What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a bride before?"

But that would open the door to conversation, and Mia isn't in the mood to spend the next few hours chatting. She'd much rather rehash the incredible series of events that led to her elopement. She still hasn't had much opportunity to absorb it all.

Leaning back in her seat, Mia sips from her flute, swallows, and makes a face. Okay, so it isn't as fine a bubbly as Cristal. But the Cristal will surely be flowing tonight in the bridal suite.

Holding her flute in her right hand, careful not to spill any on her white silk gown, she resumes rummaging in her carry-on with her left: the hand that also happens to have a ragged edge on the fourth manicured fingernail. In other words, on her bare ring finger.

Mia's Sicilian grandmother would probably say that's a bad omen. Nana Mona would undoubtedly tell her granddaughter to get off the plan, jump into a cab back to Manhattan, and forget all about getting married. Fortunately, Nana Mona isn't here.

Unfortunately, neither is an emery board.

Mia zips her bag closed, sips more champagne, and looks around the first-class cabin for a fellow passenger who might have successfully smuggled a nail file on board. Her gaze collides with the businessman's stare from across the aisle. He reddens and quickly turns away.

So does Mia, who tries to ignore a pang of regret as she glances out the window at the sun-splashed autumn morning. In the past, she'd have found herself fending off advances from a guy like that. Or encouraging them, if she were in the mood, as long as he wasn't married. Married men, of course, are strictly off-limits.

Mia still can't quite get used to men finding her attractive. She spent most of her adolescence and young adulthood overweight and mousy.

But those days are over, thanks to a complete makeover a few years back, after her grandfather won the lottery. As she likes to tell her friend Lenore, all it took to transform the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan was cash. Lots of it. All that money opened the doors to the finest salons and spas, to fabulous shops that carry the best couture. It allowed her to hire the famed celebrity nutritionist and trainer Fuji as her own personal diet guru. Old habits died easily in Mia's case. Suddenly, there was so much more to do than lounge around in sweats every weekend tending to her small collection of windowsill orchids and eating Nana Mona's homemade lasagna. So much more to do, and wear, and eat. So many men to date . . .

Too bad her license to flirt is about to be exchanged for a license to wed.

Too bad? she asks herself, surprised. Why are you suddenly thinking it's too bad? It isn't that she doesn't want to get married, because she does.

Never mind that she is about to get married, that in fact she has to get married . . .

She wants to get married. Really. It's just that she can't help feeling a little sad about all she's leaving behind.

All?

Come on, Mia. You'll still get to enjoy all those other perks. In fact, this is the only way to ensure that you will. The only thing you're giving up is dating.

Well, okay, then it's just that she can't quite quell the age-old instinct to engage in a little benign flirtation with every red-blooded male who crosses her path.

But she's quickly discovering that this wedding gown is to red-blooded men as a cross-shaped garlic necklace is to vampires.

So it's probably a good thing she overcame her initial reluctance and opted to wear it on the flight after all. It was Derek's idea. He's meeting her at the airport.

"I'll be the one in the white tuxedo with the yellow phalaenopsis orchid boutonniere," he said, giving her pause.

Pause because white tuxedos can be tacky, in Mia's opinion, and because yellow flowers are bad luck, according to Nana Mona.

But Mia quickly pushes her doubts aside.

Orchids are her favorite flower, and Derek's, as well. Orchids are the reason that they met.

And anyway, if she believed all of Nana's crazy Sicilian superstitions, she wouldn't be on this plane in the first place. Friday, according to Nana, is an unlucky day to begin a voyage. Nana would never consider leaving Astoria on a Friday if she couldn't be back well before nightfall, much less embark on a cross-country journey and married life all in one shot.

But you don't believe that stuff . . . Do you?

Of course not, Mia retorts to her wishy-washy inner self, lifting her chin stubbornly.

Yellow flowers are not bad luck. And on the right person, a white tuxedo might be downright elegant.

Derek Jenkins is most definitely the right person. As in Mr. Right person.

Didn't Madame Tamar tell Mia that one day she would marry a man whose name started with a D and ended with a k sound?

Mia forgot all about the prophecy, not even remembering it when Derek popped into her life a week later, quite literally, via the Internet.

Who would have thought that spending her afternoons idly surfing orchid growers' sites on the Web while Nana Mona naps would have led to this?

Now here she is, going to the chapel . . . More specifically, the Chapel of Luv.

The unorthodox spelling probably shouldn't bother her. And it doesn't. Not really. It's just that . . .

Well, she can't help wondering whether this whole thing wouldn't feel a lot more official if she were going to the Chapel of Love.

But Derek made all the arrangements, and she trusts him implicitly. As implicitly as one can trust a future husband whom one has never met.

Yes, Mia trusts Derek, and she trusts her instincts. This is the right choice.

Never mind that it's her only choice.

She's goin' to the chapel, and she's gonna get mahhah- harried . . .

Yes, and just in the nick of time, Mia thinks, smoothing the folds of her long white silk skirt before fastening her seat belt across her lap.

"Here you go, Mr. Chickalini," the pretty blonde gate attendant drawls, stapling something to his ticket and handing it across the counter. "We're boarding now. In fact, you might want to hurry on over. Takeoff is in a few minutes."

"Too bad," Dom tells her, flashing a flirtatious smile. "If I weren't about to leave town for a few days, I'd ask you for your phone number."

She giggles, her cheeks tinting pink. "Really? Well, if I weren't happily married, I'd definitely give it to you." Married? And happily? She isn't even wearing a ring. Dom checked, out of habit, when he stepped up to the counter.

"Oh, well. Can't win 'em all." With an arm-swinging, finger-snapping "Darn!" gesture, he hurries away from the counter, toward the statuesque, uniformed redhead waiting beside the open Jetway. She, too, is married, he notes, following a perfunctory glance at her left hand.

After checking his ticket, tearing off the stub, and handing it back to him, she says, "Have a nice flight, Mr. . . . Chickeno, is it?"

It isn't, but Dom nods, accustomed to the butchered pronunciation of his surname. The redhead pronounces the first syllable sheik and invokes poultry with the remainder; the blonde at the counter's southern accent made it even more unintelligible.

Oh, well. Attractive women can get away with a lot, as far as Dom is concerned. Even attractive married women. Striding along the Jetway with his garment bag slung over his shoulder, he contemplates the fact that the world-at least, his little corner of it-is primarily populated by married women. And men. Married couples.

They're everywhere, lately, touting wedded bliss as though they're part of some pro bono campaign for the World Organization of Happily Ever After.

Everyone is living happily ever after, dammit. Dom's older sisters, Nina and Rosalie; his older brother, Pete; his best friend, Maggie; his cousins, his neighbors, his old college fraternity brothers . . . even his kid brother, Ralphie, is engaged.

Dom's prized summer weekends were mainly spent at weddings, engagement parties, bachelor parties, even that couples shower for Ralphie and Francesca, at which Dom was the only solo attendee. He'd have brought a date, but he was afraid the bridal theme might give an unattached woman ideas.

Hell, mere dinner and a movie tend to give unattached women ideas these days.

It's no wonder that Dom himself is almost tempted to start getting ideas.

But he's going to put a stop to that. Nothing like a decadent getaway to Sin City to remind a red-blooded guy that footloose and fancy-free is the way to go. All he needs now is a cold beer in his hand, a stack of poker chips on the table, and a Catherine Zeta-Jones or Angelina Jolie look-alike on his arm.

At the door of the plane, Dom comes to a halt as two male flight attendants attempt to wrestle a double baby stroller into submission.

"Press that latch," one is saying. "No, first we have to turn it upside down," the other retorts.

"Not until after you press the latch." "Are you sure?"

When neither pressing the latch nor turning the stroller upside down proves effective in collapsing it, both men glance up at Dom.

"Don't look at me," he says with a shrug. "I have no idea how to fold that thing."

Nor is he in any rush to board a flight that contains at least two babies.

Not that Dom has anything against babies. His world isn't just teeming with married couples; it's crawling with children. He relishes being Uncle Dom, whose pockets are filled with bubble gum and quarters to pull out of tiny ears and who doesn't hesitate to get soaked in a squirt-gun fight or crawl around in the mud on all fours giving pony rides. His sisters call him an overgrown kid.

But thi

s morning, he isn't Uncle Dom the Overgrown Kid.

He's a grown-up businessman en route to a convention in Sin City, and he wouldn't mind a little peace and quiet along the way.

"Try pressing the latch again," one flight attendant urges the other, who obliges.

Naturally, nothing happens. "Let's leave it here," the latch-happy attendant whispers conspiratorially.

"You're evil!" Deliciously evil, judging by the other attendant's expression. "What about the poor passenger?" "What about her? She can buy another one in Vegas."

Dom, who has been to Vegas enough times to realize it isn't the most kid-friendly destination, can't help intervening on behalf of the hapless parent who will be forced to manhandle two kids and a mountain of luggage to the hotel after an exhausting cross-country flight.

He steps forward with a gruff, "Here, let me take a look," and in two seconds flat has the stroller folded and ready to stow.

"How'd you do that?" asks one of the dumbfounded stewards.

Dom, who isn't quite certain how he did that, shrugs. "You must have one at home." "A stroller? Me?" Dom laughs. "Nope." "You're not a daddy?"

"Nope. I'm not even a hubby . . . and I don't plan to be any time soon." Dom wonders why he finds it necessary to make that clear to everyone he ever meets, including these two men, whom he suspects aren't in the market for wives, either . . . but for reasons vastly different from his.

Lest they have the wrong idea about him, he adopts his most heterosexual stride as he steps at last over the threshold onto the plane.

To the right is coach class, where passengers are jamming themselves into center seats, or struggling to load baggage into overhead bins, or casting wary glances toward the crying babies that seem to be everywhere.

To his left is first class, cordoned off by another flight attendant and a thick set of drawn curtains.

Dom goes left, grateful for the frequent-flier-mileage upgrade in his hand.

He moves past the curtains and is greeted by a welcome hush and the pretty female flight attendant, who pauses with an open bottle of champagne poised in her hand and asks to see his ticket.

"You're right up there in the second row by the window, Mr. Chickalini," she informs him with a blue-eyed gaze that's somehow both sultry and cheerful. She even comes fairly close to pronouncing his name correctly.

"Perfect. Thank you." She turns back to the seated couple in front of him, saying over her shoulder, "I'll be out of your way in just a moment so that you can get to your seat."

"Take your time." He admires the view of her curvy posterior until a glance at her left hand reveals a diamond engagement ring. Why is he surprised? And why is he disappointed?

There are plenty of single women in the world. Certainly, there are in Las Vegas. After he checks into the hotel, he'll head right down to the pool and check them out.

Babes in bikinis. Yes, he tells himself firmly, that's just what the doctor ordered after what he's been through lately.

He spent last weekend babysitting his friend Maggie's children so that she and Charlie could get away together one last time before their new baby comes. He took Julia and Katie to Playland as promised, and they rode their beloved bumper cars over and over again. The chaotic weekend was followed by a whirlwind of a wining, dining workweek, capped off by a traffic-clogged cab ride to insanely busy LaGuardia Airport.

Babes in bikinis? Sure as hell beats babies in diapers-not that he doesn't adore Maggie's daughters.

The thing is . . . Dom is tired.

Not just from babysitting and work and traffic and endless lines, lines, lines. No, it goes deeper than that.

Bone tired. No, deeper still. Soul tired.

Try as he might to conjure enthusiasm for the longawaited trip to Sin City, Dom suddenly isn't entirely certain he has the energy to . . . sin.

He wonders, as he watches the flight attendant's diamond engagement ring twinkling like a beacon in the sunlight, whether maybe it's a sign.

Maybe all of this-the married women, the seeming abundance of gold bands and diamond rings, even the baby stroller-is a sign that it's time for Dom to settle down.

After all, he's pushing thirty.

No Chickalini man has ever retained his bachelorhood past his thirtieth birthday. A scant few, like his uncle Cheech, have reclaimed it after failed marriages, but nobody in the family has ever successfully avoided the altar for a full three decades.

Dom, whose birthday is next week, always intended to be the first.

Especially considering the fact that he's never found anybody he can even remotely conceive of spending the rest of his life with.

But now . . . Now, he can't help wondering whether somebody's trying to tell him something. Somebody upstairs. Somebody with a divine plan.

The Chickalini family is very big on divine plans. And on signs. Especially the women-namely, Dom's sisters, his grandmother, and his aunt Carm.

A dream about somebody you haven't seen in a while is a sign that you should call that person right away because something-good or bad-is going on with him or her. An ATM machine that isn't working properly is a sign that you shouldn't be spending the cash you intended to get.

A rained-out baseball game is a sign that your team would have lost if they had played.

"But the other team is rained out, too," Dom always pointed out. "And somebody has to win."

Nobody ever had a satisfactory reply to that, because signs, as Dominic's family tends to believe, aren't meant to be questioned. They're meant to be noted, and perhaps heeded as advice or warnings, as the case might be. Signs mean somebody upstairs is trying to tell you something, and you'd better listen.

Dom watches the flight attendant pouring champagne for a pair of cooing, cuddling newlyweds. How does he know they're newlyweds?

For one thing, they're wearing matching rings and gazing into each other's eyes, something long-married couples rarely do, as far as Dom can tell. For another thing, the flight attendant tells them to enjoy their honeymoon. Honeymoons, newlyweds, rings . . .

All signs? You've got marriage on the brain, and you're being ridiculous, Dom scolds himself. You're getting all worked up over nothing.

He's going to stop looking for meaning in every little coincidence. After all, it's not as though there's a neon billboard flashing Get Married in his face, or his dream woman popping up in a wedding gown begging him to say I do.

Now that would be a sign. Anything short of it is mere coincidence and not the slightest threat to the unprecedented achievement in Chickalini bachelorhood.

"All set, sir." "Thank you." Eager to sit back and relax for the next five hours, Dom at last stashes his bag, steps around the flight attendant, and down the aisle . . .

Then stops short in front of his designated row. There, in all her silken white glory, a halo of sunlight beaming through the window to cast her in an actual glow, is the most beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones/Angelina Jolie hybrid-and the most beautiful bride-he's ever seen.

Excerpted from Bride Needs Groom , by Wendy Markham . Copyright (c) 2005 by Wendy Corsi Staub. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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