Mother Of The Brideñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Mother of the Bride
Table of Contents
Mr G. Neilson
and Miss E. Palmer.
The engagement is joyfully announced between Gregory, son of Mr Z. Neilson, of Knightsbridge, London, and Emily, daughter of Mrs H. Palmer, of London, W14.
HELEN choked on a mouthful of orange juice as the announcement in The Times almost seemed to leap out of the page at her. Emily and Greg? What on earth–? This had to be some sort of practical joke! There was no way–
‘What is it, Helen?’ The man seated across the breakfast table frowned at her enquiringly.
She immediately folded the newspaper, announcement inwards, deliberately keeping her movements unhurried, mopping up the orange juice she had spilt in her initial reaction, with the snowy white napkin from her knee, smiling reassuringly at her father.
‘The juice went the wrong way,’ she dismissed lightly. Her father had a heart condition and she didn't want him upset by what was, after all, just a practical joke being carried out on Emily by one of her friends because it was her birthday today. Except that Helen's father would find it no funnier than Helen did herself.
‘It was very clumsy of you, Helen.’ He stood up to get a damp cloth.
She felt irritated at the rebuke. ‘It's only juice, and the tablecloth will wash,’ she snapped—and then wished she hadn't as her father looked at her with hurt reproach for her uncharacteristic sharpness.
But that announcement in the newspaper had shaken her, she had to admit, for all that she knew it was nonsense.
‘I'm sorry,’ she sighed, standing up too. ‘I'll have to go, I have three weddings on today.’ Nevertheless, she automatically began to clear the breakfast things from the table before she went, with the economy of movement that was typical of her.
‘Leave that, Helen,’ her father chided. ‘I can do it when you've gone.'
She smiled at him affectionately for the offer, completing the task, feeling slightly guilty for her earlier abruptness. ‘Don't forget we're meeting Emily for dinner tonight,’ she reminded him as she pulled on the jacket to her black tailored suit, the high-necked light blue blouse she wore beneath making the grey of her eyes look almost the same colour.
He looked offended at the implication that he was becoming absent-minded, loath to admit even to himself that he was seventy-eight.
‘As if I would forget my granddaughter's eighteenth birthday!'
As if any of them could, Helen smiled inwardly; Emily had been driving them all mad with it for weeks now!
Tonight they were having an intimate dinner for the three of them; tomorrow Emily was having a party at a local hotel for all her friends. It had been their way of including her grandfather in the celebrations without putting him through the ordeal of a large, noisy party.
Helen paused to look at her reflection in the hall mirror on her way to the front door, not with any feelings of vanity in mind; it was an everyday habit that she had to check her appearance before she left for the florist's shop she ran in town.
Short dark hair showed no signs of greying, wide grey eyes surrounded by long dark lashes, her nose small and slightly snub, adding to the impression of youth, her mouth wide and smiling, her complexion smooth and creamy. She had had more than her fair share of troubles over the years, and yet none of that showed in the gamine beauty of her face.
It didn't even occur to her that she didn't look old enough to be the mother of an eighteen-year-old daughter, that she had in fact been younger than Emily was today when she had given birth to her lovely scatter-brained daughter; at thirty-five she only looked old enough to be Emily's older sister.
‘See you this evening,’ she called out to her father as, neatness checked, she carried on to the door, her thoughts already turning to the floral displays and bouquets she had to get ready for the weddings today. Luckily they were all afternoon weddings, otherwise she would have had to be in to the shop at six this morning rather than eight-thirty. She would then have been like a wet rag for Emily's dinner party tonight!
It wasn't until she was unlocking her silver-coloured Metro, which helped her get through the London traffic so well, that she realised she had brought the folded newspaper out with her. It had been done subconsciously, but thank God she hadn't left it in the house for her father to find and read!
She waited until she had got in behind the wheel of the car before looking at the announcement once more herself.
There was no mistake, she realised heavily, as she read it carefully once again. It was Emily and Greg. And Greg meant Zack … She wondered if he had seen the announcement yet; The Times had always been his morning newspaper.
Well, practical joke or not, there would have to be a retraction put in as quickly as possible!
And she would have to ring Emily as soon as she got to the shop, warn her of what had happened. No doubt her bubbly daughter would find the whole thing hilarious. And if it had been anyone other than Greg Neilson perhaps Helen might have found it amusing too.
Her full-time assistant, Sonia, and the two young girls who usually helped out on a Saturday were already waiting outside the shop to be let in when Helen parked her car on the road opposite just before eight-thirty, getting out and taking the newspaper with her. Thank God none of the three girls waiting for her read The Times, although she realised there would probably be some explaining to do to some friends today who would wonder if the announcement was correct, and why they hadn't been told sooner.
As it very often was first thing in the morning, the telephone was ringing inside the shop as she unlocked the door for them all to enter, the two younger girls making a start on taking out the buckets of blooms and arranging them on the pavement outside; by nine o'clock the shop would be ready to open. Sonia went straight through to the back of the shop to make a start on making up the bouquets from the boxes of fresh flowers that had already been delivered.
Helen opened the order book that always lay beside the telephone, picking up the pen next to it before lifting the receiver, knowing it would probably be some poor man who had forgotten his wife's birthday or their wedding anniversary and wanted to know if it was too late to get flowers delivered today; these frantic early-morning calls were invariably from such worried men. Helen always felt sorry for them.
‘Palmer Florists, can I help you?’ She smiled as she answered the call; Sonia would make the delivery later on today, and the wife in question would never even guess at her husband's frantic early-morning call to the florist.
Just that. But it was more than enough.
Her hand tightened about the receiver until her knuckles showed white, but she replied smoothly, ‘Zack.'
‘You've seen the newspaper?’ Again he spoke with the minimum of effort needed to make himself understood. Again it was enough.
Two could play at that game! ‘Yes,’ Helen answered as economically.
‘I think we should talk, don't you?’ It was an instruction, not a request.
It had always been so with this man; he ordered, everyone else jumped to obey.
Helen stiffened resentfully. ‘I don't see any point–'
‘Our children have seen fit to announce their engagement to each other—unless you put it in?’ The idea suddenly seemed to occur to him.
‘Certainly not,’ she snapped.
‘I didn't think so,’ he rasped. ‘In that case, the announcement seems more than enough reason to me for the two of us to talk!'
She felt the colour burn her cheeks at the intended rebuke. Ridiculous. The whole thing was a practical joke anyway, so why should she feel guilty for refusing to discuss it with this man? Because that was exactly what he was trying to make her feel.
‘It's a joke, Zack,’ she told him impatiently. On all of us, she thought wearily. Whoever the little devils were who had done this, they couldn't realise just how much of a joke it was!
‘What the hell makes you think that?’ he bit out tautly.
She stiffened. ‘I think I have a close enough relationship with Emily for her to have told me about something like this,’ she scorned.
‘Do you?’ Zack returned softly.
She gave an outraged gasp. ‘Now look here–'
‘I'll call at the shop at four o'clock this afternoon,’ he cut in arrogantly.
That had always been the trouble with Zack; he moved too fast for her, too fast for most people! ‘I don't–'
‘We can talk then,’ he spoke autocratically over her objection.
‘—have the time to see you this afternoon,’ she finished determinedly—and then realised how aggressive she had probably sounded as there was a pointed silence on the other end of the line. Well, damn it, he wasn't even letting her finish what she wanted to say! She drew in a controlling breath. ‘It's Saturday, Zack,’ she reminded him evenly. ‘I have three weddings today, and–'
‘And our children have just announced a fourth!’ he bit out tautly. ‘That is more important than anything else either of us has to do today.’ He was reminding her that, as a surgeon, he was probably busier than she was! ‘I'll be at the shop at four,’ he repeated firmly before replacing the receiver with a decisive click.
Helen's hand was shaking so much—whether just from anger at being bullied in this way, or from the shock of having to talk to him at all, she wasn't sure!—that it took her three flustered attempts to replace her own receiver.
One thing she was sure of: Zack would be here, as stated, at four o'clock this afternoon! He was a man who always did exactly what he said he was going to do, no matter how unpleasant the task—and she certainly had no reason to believe, if it weren't for Emily and Greg, that he was any more eager to talk to her than she was to him. The opposite, in fact!
Sonia wandered into the tiny room they laughingly called the office at that moment, her preoccupied expression telling Helen that she was looking for the list of today's orders. But her expression turned to one of concern as she glanced up and saw how pale Helen was. ‘All right?'
All right? All right? No, it was not all right; just talking to Zack Neilson had totally unnerved her.
‘Fine,’ she answered shakily, wishing she sounded more convincing. ‘I just—I have a phone call to make, and I'll be right with you.'
Sonia, a ravishing blonde in her early twenties, wasn't fooled for a minute by Helen's attempt at a smile. But over the two years the two of them had worked together they had learnt to respect each other's privacy. And so, with one last concerned glance, Sonia disappeared with today's list of deliveries.
Helen quickly picked up the receiver and dialled Emily's number, well aware that time was marching on, and she still had those three weddings this afternoon.
The telephone rang and rang at the other end, and when a sleepy voice did eventually answer she knew instantly that it wasn't Emily's. There was a further delay while the still-sleepy flatmate, one of the three girls Emily shared with, wandered off to get Emily from her bedroom. Only to finally wander back again minutes later to inform Helen that Emily wasn't in her room and that she must have gone down to the library early to study.
Helen knew it was much more likely that Emily had been to an all-night party and hadn't even got home yet; the library wasn't even open for another ten minutes!
Emily was at college studying English Literature, but as she was able to breeze through any studying involved with ease she tended to have a fairly hectic social life. God knew what the party tomorrow night was going to turn out like!
Helen thanked the flatmate and rang off. She would have to try to catch up with Emily later on in the day. Anyway, if she knew her daughter, Emily would wonder what all the fuss was about a silly practical joke. And she wouldn't have too much sympathy with Helen's agitation at Zack's involvement; Emily had always found him absolutely charming. She hadn't known him in the same way Helen had!
The morning passed in a rush as she and Sonia dealt with all the flowers for the afternoon, Sonia taking the van to deliver the flowers to the appropriate churches before carrying on with their other deliveries, Helen taking the bouquets, corsages, and button-holes to the homes of the brides herself. After weeks of deliberation over colours and arrangements, she then felt it was totally unfair to present the nervous bride with a complete stranger delivering the flowers on the actual wedding day.
That June afternoon Helen saw a young bride who had obviously come to the decision that ‘if it didn't work out there was always divorce', a second bride who was calmly serene about the whole thing—mainly because of the half-bottle of cooking sherry she and her mother had shared during the morning!—and the third bride who couldn't stop crying because she was sure she was doing the wrong thing and it was too late to call it all off.
By the time Helen drove back to the shop at five minutes to four she felt like joining her!
It hadn't been an easy day by any means, and Zack's expected arrival in five minutes didn't help one little bit. It would be too much to hope that he had telephoned while she had been out and cancelled the meeting.
‘Any calls?’ she prompted Sonia hopefully, putting the kettle on for a much-needed cup of tea; the homes of the brides were usually much too chaotic for them to even think of offering the long-suffering florist refreshment!
‘Business,’ Sonia shrugged. ‘And a few friends who said they would call you back at home over the weekend,’ she dismissed easily, having no idea why Helen's flustered expression suddenly took on a hunted look.
But Helen knew exactly why those friends had called, knew she was going to have a lot of explaining to do over the weekend.
‘None of the brides actually decided to call the wedding off, did they?’ Sonia prompted drily.
That had happened, more than once, with the result that they almost invariably had to start all over again a few weeks later once the bride had got over her attack of nerves and decided she wasn't marrying a monster after all!
‘No, they were a pretty hardy bunch,’ she answered distractedly, glancing at her watch; it was three minutes to four. She just had time to try calling Emily once again. She had hoped the sleepy flatmate of this morning actually might have passed on the message to Emily that she had called, but if she had Emily had obviously been too tired to bother to call her back when she did finally get in. She had probably just assumed that Helen wanted to wish her a happy birthday, and decided it could easily wait until this evening. Emily wasn't known for her conventionality!
There was no reply at the flat at all now, and if Emily was asleep Helen knew she was wasting her time even trying to wake her; Emily would sleep through a bomb being dropped if she was tired enough.
She gratefully took a mug of tea from Sonia before rushing into her office, needing to tidy her appearance before Zack arrived. She knew that, as usual, Zack would look immaculate.
At exactly four o'clock the bell over the shop door jangled as it was opened—and Helen's nerve-endings jangled along with it!
She stood up restlessly to go out into the shop, could hear the deep tenor of Zack's voice as she approached the door, feeling herself tense at the prospect of seeing him again, even though she had known it would be inevitable very soon. She just hadn't expected it to be now!
She watched him, unobserved, from the doorway for several long seconds.
He looked the same as the last time she had seen him, time having been kind to him, dark hair flecked attractively with grey at his temples, eyes the colour of warmed chocolate surrounded by long dark lashes, his nose long and straight, mouth full-lipped but always kept firmly under control, thinning it slightly, detracting from the sensuality of that fuller lower lip, his jaw square and determined.
Today he was dressed casually, for him, obviously not having been to the hospital, although Helen knew the short-sleeved blue shirt would be made out of silk, and the black trousers that fitted low on his hips had a very precise crease down the centre of the long leg, black brogue shoes highly polished.
Tall and slender, his body nevertheless spoke of a leashed power, muscles rippling in his arms and back as he moved.
An excitingly attractive man.
A fact the young Saturday girls were well aware of as they fluttered around him, totally impervious to the fact that, at thirty-nine, Zack was old enough to be father to both of them!
But even Sonia, a much more cynical individual where men were concerned, was eyeing him with totally feminine curiosity, Helen noticed.
‘My name is Neilson,’ he was informing Sonia now, his voice deep and husky, and not cold as it had been when he spoke to Helen earlier. ‘I'm here to see–'
‘Mr Neilson,’ Helen greeted smoothly, moving forward with easy grace, meeting Zack's mocking gaze with a challenge of her own as he turned to look at her with raised brows.
‘Neilson?’ Sonia repeated softly to herself, looking up at him with dawning comprehension. ‘Then you must be–'
‘The owner,’ Helen cut in abruptly. ‘Zack, would you like to come through to the office?’ She held the door open pointedly.
He gave an acknowledging inclination of his head, dark eyes openly mocking now as he realised he had her at a disadvantage.
Helen preceded him into the adjoining room as he gave her no chance to do otherwise, standing back deliberately until she had gone through.
She could feel his gaze on her the whole time, and hoped she hadn't suddenly developed a ladder in her tights since this morning when she set out so neatly. The distance between the shop floor and her little office suddenly seemed like a mile!
‘The owner, yes,’ Zack echoed softly from behind her as he closed the door with a decisive click. ‘But also your husband—Mrs Neilson!'
COLOUR flared in Helen's cheeks. ‘That,’ she bit out tautly, ‘is only a formality, and you know it!'
‘Formality or not–’ Zack shrugged unconcernedly ‘—the fact remains, we are husband and wife.'
‘Only just,’ Helen snapped. ‘Another couple of months and I can apply for a divorce on the grounds of two years’ separation.'
Zack's mouth twisted derisively. ‘And you're counting the days!'
And the hours and minutes! God, she didn't know why she should be made to feel so defensive about wanting their divorce; the marriage itself had been a mistake from the first, a convenience, and not even of their own choosing.
Which was why she would rather it had been any other young man than Greg Neilson who had been named in this birthday joke on Emily! Although the people responsible for the announcement couldn't have realised just what a hornets’ nest they were poking; they had only lived together as a family for a matter of months, so most of Greg and Emily's friends wouldn't even realise they were stepbrother and stepsister.
She had known Emily and Greg still saw quite a lot of each other socially—of course she had; it had been inevitable when they were both attending the same college, and obviously the friendship had given their friends a good idea for a practical joke.
With any other boy but Greg even Helen might have found it funny!
She moved to sit behind the small desk, which was all she could get inside this room, feeling more self-assured as she took on her business mantle. ‘I'm sure you aren't here today to discuss our divorce–'
‘Are you?’ His voice was silkily soft, as he moved with the minimum of effort needed to take him to the chair placed opposite hers, his height looking slightly ridiculous folded into the small wooden chair.
She sighed. ‘Zack–'
‘Emily and Greg,’ he intercepted drily. ‘What are we going to do about them?'
‘Do about them?’ she echoed in a puzzled voice. ‘We aren't going to do anything about them.’ She shook her head derisively. ‘Their friends are all having a good laugh at their expense because of Emily's birthday today–'
‘I'm well aware of the fact that it's my stepdaughter's eighteenth birthday today,’ he bit out harshly.
‘Emily is not your stepdaughter!’ Two bright spots of angry colour heightened her cheeks.
His mouth tightened. ‘Oh, yes, she is, Helen. And she always will be. Whether you like it or not,’ he challenged hardly. ‘Whether you go through with the divorce or not–'
‘Of course I'll go through with the divorce!’ There was no doubt about that.
‘Why?’ Zack watched her with narrowed, questioning eyes, no longer the colour of warmed chocolate, so dark now, they were almost black.
Her eyes widened. ‘Why?’ she echoed. ‘But–’ She shook her head dismissively. ‘We're straying from the point of your visit.'
‘Are we?’ He crossed one long leg over the other, perfectly relaxed, filled with that stillness that was so unnerving.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî