Always a Bridesmaid by Jana Richards

Always a Bridesmaid by Jana Richards

Always a Bridesmaid

Left at the Altar, Book 3

by Jana Richards

Uncial Press

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-60174-176-9

[ Comedic Romance, MF ]

When Dani pretends to be Zach’s girlfriend to keep his ex-fiancé off his back, sparks ignite. Can make-believe turn into reality or will Zach’s trust issues mean their relationship is doomed before it begins? Will Dani always believe she’s an ugly duckling or can Zach convince her she’s a beautiful swan?

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Chapter One

This was it. Definitely. She’d never be a bridesmaid again. She really meant it this time.

Daniella DiPietro pasted a smile on her face as she walked slowly down the aisle to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride.” The three inch heels the bride insisted she wear pinched her toes, and the bridesmaid dress, though stylish, was an uncomfortable size too small. When Chantal Campbell’s first bridesmaid suddenly backed out and Dani reluctantly accepted the job, she was stuck with the ill-fitting dress, since there was no time to order one that fit properly. A seamstress did her best with alterations, and a sturdy pair of Spanx helped contain her curvy figure within the slim, strapless column of bright pink satin, but the sweetheart neckline exposed much more of her ample cleavage than she felt happy showing. She felt like an exhibitionist, with her breasts practically spilling out of the dress. One false move and she’d flash the congregation.

Dani clamped down on her embarrassment. The things she did in the name of friendship.

Friendship? Though they’d been friends in university, she hadn’t spoken to the bride in years. But she’d remained friends with Fiona, Chantal’s sister, and when she begged her to help, Dani simply couldn’t say no. What a soft touch she was.

She watched Zach Morrison, the groom, as he waited at the front of the church for his bride, his eyes focused on the door through which she was about to enter. Lordy, he was even more gorgeous now then the last time she’d seen him, some eight years ago. His thick, dark hair was a little too long to be considered proper business length, but not so long as to fall into Eighties rock star territory. The dark strands curled around his ears and the nape of his neck, and one lock fell rakishly across his forehead. A long list of attributes completed the picture: prominent cheek bones, a strong jaw and an elegantly shaped mouth, not to mention broad shoulders, slim hips and blue eyes to die for. But even more important, Zach was a nice guy. Maybe too nice for Chantal.

This wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo. Eight years ago, they’d been engaged until Chantal had called it off, and then unexpectedly married someone else.

But here they were, eight years and two divorces later–both Chantal’s–and about to marry. Perhaps it was meant to be. For Zach’s sake, Dani hoped Chantal treated him right this time.

Finally she reached the front of the church and took her place. A moment later, Fiona joined her. Tall, slim Fee looked like a runway model in the bridesmaid gown instead of an overstuffed pink sausage like her. Despite starving herself the last couple of weeks, the dress was still too tight. As if reading her thoughts, her stomach rumbled ominously. She was hungry enough to gnaw off her own arm.

Finally the bride made her entrance through the church doors on her father’s arm, looking radiant and gorgeous. As usual, Chantal was the most beautiful woman in the room. Her elegant strapless gown was a white silk confection that fit her perfect size two figure flawlessly. Her glorious blonde curls had been artfully arranged in a chic updo that showed off her long, graceful neck and creamy shoulders.

Dani swallowed her rising envy. She felt as though she’d been tossed in a time machine and sent back eight years to the days when she’d played ugly duckling to Chantal’s beautiful swan.

She didn’t enjoy feeling envious any more than she enjoyed feeling like an ugly duckling, not when she’d worked so hard to get past both emotions.

Chantal reached the altar and took Zach’s hand. The minister began the marriage liturgy, the usual stuff about love being patient and kind, bearing all things, and so on and so on. Dani stopped listening, too uncomfortable to concentrate. Besides, she’d heard the spiel more times than she cared to remember. She occupied herself by calculating the number of hours until she could peel off the gown and throw on a pair of comfy sweatpants.

Suddenly the doors of the church crashed open. A man shouted, “You can’t marry him, Chantal! I love you and I know you love me!”

Dani turned to stare, along with everyone else in the congregation. The man in the doorway wore a rumpled grey suit, with his red-and-blue striped tie hanging askew. His blonde hair stood on end and his hands were fisted at his sides.

“Who the hell is that, Chantal?” Zach’s question was urgent. “What’s he talking about?”

Chantal’s face turned whiter than her dress. “He’s my first husband,” she said in an undertone. Turning to the blonde-haired man, she yelled, “How dare you disrupt my wedding, Harry! Go home.”

Harry strode down the aisle toward Chantal. “No! I can’t let you make the biggest mistake of your life by marrying this guy. You know it would be wrong.”

Zach moved to stand between Chantal and the intruder. “What’s he talking about, Chantal?”

Harry stopped and raised his hands. “I don’t have any quarrel with you, Zach. She’s never going to make you happy. She still loves me. She told me so last night.”

Dani heard everyone in the congregation gasp in unison. Was Chantal in love with this guy? If she was, why were they all here, supposedly celebrating her union with Zach? The thought must have also occurred to him. She had a front row seat to the disbelief clouding his eyes.

“Is this true? Are you in love with him?” he said.

“No! I love you! You’ve got to believe me.”

“Tell him the truth, Chantal. Tell him you were in my bed just two nights ago. Tell him!”

She bit her lip. “I swear, it didn’t mean anything. Last minute nerves got the best of me.”

For a moment Zach said nothing. His face betrayed no emotion. But Dani saw his throat work, as if he were holding back a torrent of feelings.

“So what he’s saying is true? You’ve been sleeping with him since we got back together?”

Chantal lifted her chin and raised tear-filled eyes to his. “It was only the one time, I swear! I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

For several long seconds he stared into her eyes as if trying to delve into her innermost thoughts. Finally he straightened his shoulders and gave her an almost imperceptible nod. “If you want him, then go. I’m done.” Without another word he marched to a side door.

“Zach wait, I’m sorry! Please, don’t go! I love you!”

He opened the door and left the sanctuary. The click of the latch echoed in the quiet church.

Shocked silence greeted his departure. Dani stood motionless, too stunned to even breathe. Mike, one of Zach’s groomsmen, quickly left through the same side door. Dani hoped he found Zach and made sure he was okay. Her heart ached at the thought of the devastation he must be experiencing.

Chantal remained at the front of the church, still staring toward the side door. Harry approached her and touched her hand.

“Come with me, darling. Let’s get out of here.”

She recoiled from his touch. “Don’t you dare touch me! This is all your fault!”

“I couldn’t let you marry him. I love you.”

“You’ve ruined everything!”

She began to cry, tears running down her cheeks and ruining her makeup. Dani put her arm around her shoulders. Though she hated what she’d done to Zach, Chantal was genuinely hurting, and Dani couldn’t bear to kick a girl when she was down.

Todd, the second groomsman and Fiona’s boyfriend, grabbed Harry’s left arm while Chantal’s father grabbed his right.

“It’s time for you to go,” Foster Campbell said as he pulled Harry away from his daughter. “You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”

“Chantal, I love you! We can make it work this time, I know we can. Call me!” Harry cried before they tossed him out the door.

Fiona leaned close to her sister. “Is it true? Did you really sleep with Harry just two days ago?”

Chantal raised her chin defiantly. “I made a mistake, okay? Everybody makes mistakes.”

“A mistake? A mistake is when you put too much sugar in your coffee, not when you cheat on your fiancé! That’s something else entirely.”

“And of course you’re so perfect, you’ve never done anything wrong.”

“At least I’ve never humiliated my family in front of everyone they know.” Fiona snapped.

People in the congregation watched with keen interest, some of them pulling out cell phones to take pictures. In minutes, this fiasco would be all over the Internet. Dani could imagine the title of the YouTube video: Two-timing Bride dumped at the altar.

She stepped between Fiona and Chantal and whispered, “Let’s save this argument for somewhere a little less public.”

Todd returned and escorted Chantal and Fiona to one of the waiting limos. Chantal kept her chin up, her expression haughty, as if daring anyone to remark on her behavior.

Dani gave her high marks for having plenty of nerve.

Chantal’s parents followed closely behind them. Foster practically carried his sobbing wife down the aisle.

“What’s going to happen to all the flower arrangements? And the reception? My beautiful reception is ruined!” It was so like Margaret Campbell to worry about flower arrangements and receptions when her daughter had just broken a good man’s heart.

Shaking off her uncharitable thoughts, Dani gritted her teeth and headed back up the aisle. As the only member of the wedding party left, it fell to her to usher the guests from the church, since the minister didn’t seem capable of doing it. She held up her hand to get everyone’s attention.

She raised her voice. “Excuse me please. As you’ve probably already guessed, there will be no wedding today. The family requests that you all please leave the church quietly and quickly. Thank you for your cooperation and patience.”

Fortunately, Mike returned and he helped her shepherd the guests from the church.

Once people began leaving, she took him aside. “How’s Zach? Is he okay?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I couldn’t find him. He must have hailed a cab and gone back to his apartment.”

Her heart went out to Zach. He had to be traumatized by this turn of events. A wave of anger swept over her. How could Chantal do this to him? “You’ll check on him, make sure he’s okay?”

“As soon as we’re done here.” He nodded toward the front of the church. “What about Zach’s mom and Chantal’s grandfather? What should we do with them?”

She followed his gaze to the front pew where an older gentleman sat alone with a dark haired woman, both looking upset and bewildered. Despite all the tumult, they hadn’t left their seats. Dani had met Chantal’s grandfather, Campbell J. Campbell, years before and had found him to be a rather intimidating character. But at the moment he looked frail and vulnerable. She took a deep breath. “Don’t worry, I’ll look after them. You see about Zach.”

“I will.”

Whispering and gossiping, the congregation filed out of the church. Soon it was empty. Dani said goodbye to Mike, giving him her cell phone number so he could call her when he’d found Zach. She felt uneasy about him being alone, and wouldn’t relax until she knew he was with friends.

But worrying about Zach would have to wait. She still had things to take care of.

She approached Zach’s mother and Chantal’s grandfather. Mr. Campbell was holding Adele Morrison’s hand. Zach’s mother had worked for years as Camp Campbell’s housekeeper and personal assistant. Their association had been the reason Zach and Chantal had met in the first place.

“There’s a car waiting outside,” Dani said gently. “It can take you back to your house. Why don’t you let me help you to it?”

Adele blinked back tears, clearly fighting to hold herself together. She rose to her feet and helped Camp get to his. The elderly gentleman leaned heavily on his cane as he offered her his arm.

“Chin up, my dear. We have nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Adele took a fortifying breath and looped her arm through his. “Yes, you’re right. Let’s get out of here.”

They walked out of the church and down the steps to the sidewalk, their heads held high. Dani was struck by their dignity, although she sensed in Camp a repressed anger waiting to be unleashed. For her part, she only wanted to escape the church and get away from the curious stares of guests still milling about, no doubt hoping to hear some juicy gossip.

By the time they reached the second limo, the car carrying Fiona and Todd and the others was pulling away from the curb. Dani helped Camp, and then Adele into the vehicle. She was about to enter the limo herself when Adele let out a cry.

“Oh no! My purse! I must have left it in the church.”

“I can find it for you,” Dani soothed. “What does it look like?”

“It’s a small black beaded clutch.” She looked close to tears again. “I’m so sorry to be such a nuisance.”

“Of course you’re not a nuisance.” Dani gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll find it and bring it to you, okay?”

Adele gave her a tremulous smile. “You’re very kind. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She knocked on the window to get the limo driver’s attention, and asked him to wait while she ran inside and looked for the purse. Hiking up her dress, she trudged back up the stairs of the church, toes screaming in protest. The only good news about this fiasco was that she could ditch the killer shoes and devil dress sooner than she’d expected.

The minister was alone in the church when she reentered. He hurried down the aisle toward her, vestments flapping.

“My goodness, what a turn of events!” he said. “I’ve never had anything like this happen at one of my weddings. It’s very disconcerting for me.”

“I’m sure it is.” It wasn’t exactly a bowl of cherries for the bride and groom either.

“Some people just aren’t cut out for marriage. I blame it on the Internet. It’s the Devil’s tool, you know.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Edging around the minister she said, “If you’ll excuse me, I need to retrieve a lost purse.”

“Of course,” he said, as if giving her his blessing. “I have an appointment I need to get to as well. Good day, miss.”

She breathed a sigh of relief, glad he was leaving. “Good day.”

As soon as he left the church, she hurried to the front pew where Adele had been seated. Sure enough, a small beaded bag lay on the floor under the second row of pews. First she tried to move the bag with her foot, but her dress was too tight to allow much leg movement. So she hitched up her dress and got down on her hands and knees to retrieve it. Her legs and feet instantly tangled in the fabric. “Damn it all to hell. I hate this bloody dress!”

“What are you doing down there?”

Startled, she banged her head on the pew.

“Ouch. Damn it.”

Instant embarrassment filled her. She was on the floor on her hands and knees with her rear end facing the man, not exactly her best feature.

But at least he wasn’t viewing her from the front. The dress could barely contain her bosom as she leaned forward. Why couldn’t she have normal-sized boobs like everybody else?

“I just need to pick up this purse. I’ll be out of here in a jiffy.”

As she stretched out her hand to grab the bag, her knee caught in the material. Before she could disentangle herself, the sound of fabric ripping in two echoed in the empty church. A moment later she felt a rush of cool air across her backside. Her stomach lurched in panic.

“Oh God!”

She reached a hand behind her and felt the large hole where the seam had given way. She desperately tried to pull the two pieces of material together while tears of humiliation threatened to fall. But she’d be damned if she’d cry in front of whoever was currently behind her and getting a close up view of her underwear.

How exactly did she gracefully get herself out of this ridiculous situation?

“Do you need help getting up?” His voice sounded familiar. Was it Zach? Oh God!

“No, no, I’m fine. Just give me a minute.”

She tried to get to her feet while holding the torn dress together with her left arm. But her legs kept getting tangled in the fabric. She simply couldn’t get enough leverage with one arm. She felt like a turtle that had been rolled onto its back and couldn’t right itself. Worse still, the more she struggled, the lower the bodice of the dress slipped, threatening to expose her completely.

The man gave an exasperated sigh. Dani felt strong arms around her waist, and let out an indignant squeal as he lifted her up and set her on her feet. Could this situation get any more embarrassing?

Apparently it could. Her mortification quadrupled when she turned around and confirmed that Zach was her rescuer. If she had to have a wardrobe malfunction, why did he, of all people, have to be there to witness it?

Please God, let a black hole swallow me right now.

He shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket. “Here, take this.”

Keeping her face averted, she reached for the jacket, grateful to find that on her it reached nearly to her knees, long enough to cover the split seam. This wasn’t the first time she’d been embarrassed because of her weight and her over-large chest, but it was probably the most humiliating. The only saving grace was that the dress hadn’t ripped in front of the entire congregation.

After wrapping the jacket around herself like a security blanket, she felt brave enough to meet his gaze. “I thought you’d left.” If she’d been the one dumped at the altar, she would have found the nearest bar and drunk herself into oblivion. Which would have taken all of two drinks.

He shrugged a broad shoulder. “I was in a back room. I just needed to be alone for a while.”

“Sorry for the interruption.”

“That’s okay. I was just leaving.” He bowed his head, his shoulders drooping. “I was waiting for everyone to leave. I didn’t want to talk to anybody about…about what happened.”

Her heart cried for him. Zach was a good guy. He didn’t deserve the humiliation Chantal had heaped on him. She wanted to tell him how badly she felt for him, wanted to let him know that she would gladly listen if he felt like talking. But their relationship had always been superficial, one that didn’t include intimate heart to heart conversations. Offering sympathy would only embarrass him more.

So she’d do what she did best. She’d make him laugh.

“I realize you’ve had a bad day, but hey, look at me. I got squeezed into a dress that makes me look like an overstuffed Barbie doll. My shoes are killing me, and then to top it all off, the dress from Hell splits across my ass so the whole world can see my underwear.”

One corner of Zach’s mouth quirked in a brief grin. “Yeah, you’ve got it all over me. I’ve only been cheated on and humiliated on my wedding day. For the record, the whole world didn’t see your underwear, just me.”

She did her best to keep a straight face. “I happen to take my semi-nakedness seriously, even if there’s only one person to witness it.”

He chuckled, a deep rumbling sound that did funny things to her insides. But despite his laughter, his blue eyes were full of pain. Dani wished there was something more she could do for him.

“Thanks for the loan of the jacket,” she said. “Can I hang on to it for a while?”

“Of course. Thank you for providing a diversion.”

“Always glad to provide comic relief.” She sneered at the neon pink satin spilling out from beneath the tuxedo jacket, while lifting the fabric and dropping it in disgust. “It wasn’t a much of a stretch, seeing how I was already dressed like a pink clown.”

Zach’s lips twitched. “It’s certainly an interesting color.”

“Please. This pink is bright enough to be visible from space.”

He laughed out loud, and she was struck by the warmth of his smile. Once upon a time, she’d had a secret little crush on him. He was way out her league and had been devoted to Chantal, but what red-blooded woman wouldn’t lust after a man as handsome as Zach just a little bit, in the privacy of her bedroom?

“The best thing about this dress is that someone else paid for it.” Dani was saving her money for something special and nothing was going to stand in her way. “Chantal said she wanted the bridesmaid dresses to make a statement. In my case, the statement was, ‘Get a different dress.'”

Hearing his fiancée’s name instantly wiped the smile from his face. “She shouldn’t have made you wear a dress you felt so uncomfortable in. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Daphne.”

Her heart fell. “Actually, it’s Daniella, Daniella DiPietro. Everyone calls me Dani.” She knew this was probably the longest conversation they’d had in their acquaintance, but it still hurt that he didn’t remember her name.

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Of course I know your name. I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’ve had a hell of a day. Not as bad as mine of course, but still lousy. It’s not a big deal.”

“It’s a big deal to me. I’m really sorry.”

Dani brushed aside his apology with a wave of her hand, trying not to let her disappointment show. She wasn’t the kind of woman men remembered. Men remembered women like Chantal, beautiful, tall, slim blondes, with cute little turned up noses. Not short, dark, pudgy women with prominent Italian beaks.

“I should go. Your mother and Camp are waiting for me in the limo. Would you like a ride home with us?”

Zach shook his head. “Thanks, but I think I want to be alone for a while longer. Please tell my mom I’m fine.”

“I will,” she said. “Can I ask you to do one more favor for me? I promised your mother I’d bring her purse to her, and we both know what’ll happen if try to crawl under there again.” She pointed to the little beaded bag on the floor beneath the pew.

“Of course.” He bent to retrieve it, giving her a close-up and personal view of his gorgeous, tight butt. She swallowed and looked away.

Zach straightened and handed her the bag. “There you go.”

“Thank you. How do I get the jacket back to you?”

“Just drop it off at the rental place.” He told her the address.

“Okay, I’ll do that. Well, I have to go home now and burn this dress. Goodbye Zach.”

“Goodbye, Daniella.”

It surprised her that he called by her full given name. She blinked and looked into his face. The desolation she saw felt like a punch in the gut. He’d obviously loved Chantal and she’d hurt him deeply. Without thinking, she laid her hand on his arm.

“It’s going to be all right.”

He placed his hand over hers. Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he took a deep breath. “I know. I just…”

Wanting nothing more than to comfort, she wrapped her arms around his waist in a hug. He held her tightly, pulling her against him and burying his face in her neck. Dani inhaled the intoxicating scent of spicy aftershave laced with underlying notes of warm, clean male. How could Chantal treat a wonderful man like Zach this way?

She gently pulled away, keeping him at arm’s length. “You’re going to get past this, Zach.”

“It doesn’t feel like it right now.”

“I know, but someday, when you’re old and grey, you’ll be sitting on the front porch with your wonderful wife of fifty years, and you’ll say ‘Thank Heaven Chantal cheated on me or I never would have met you.'”

He made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Fifty years, eh?”

“Trust me.”

Some lucky girl would snap Zach up in a minute, and if she was smart, she’d shower him with the love and consideration he deserved.

Some lucky girl, but not me.

Reluctantly, she took a step back. He squeezed her fingers before letting her go. With her heart pounding in her chest, and regret nipping at her heels, she hurried from the church.

Before she did something stupid, like kiss the jilted groom.

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