Betting on Cinderella Excerpt
Garrett Tucker cracked open the door of the vestry and peered out at the growing crowd in the church. The sanctuary was filling up fast, already half-filled on both sides with more guests coming in, all escorted by Rhett’s ushers. No sign of Lily, her maid of honor Tammy, or her bridesmaids out in the narthex from what he could see through the open double-doors.
Panning the half-filled church, he spied many of his own friends and business associates. Neither Lily nor Rhett had parents, aunts, or uncles still alive, and the first row on either side looked bereft. The next few rows on Lily’s side were full—Lily’s friend, Rob, and a slew of familiar faces Garrett recognized from his numerous trips to her Bloom & Grow Nursery. The girl at the end of the third row suddenly turned back around from searching the seated guests behind her.
Garrett stilled. He knew that face, yet he didn’t. Her shoulder-length brown hair shifted like silk with her movement. She wasn’t beautiful in the classical sense, like magazine supermodels. She was beautiful in a unique sense . . . that fit just her. He couldn’t stop staring.
As though she felt his gaze, the brunette glanced up and smiled. The jolt of awareness hit Garrett so hard it almost took his knees from beneath him. She had to feel it, too. He stared into the most incredible blue eyes he had ever seen, like the sun-brightened sea in the Bahamas, almost a turquoise-blue. Blue eyes that made him think of lazy days out on the water or swimming naked . . .
Whoa! Where had that come from?
The beauty blinked—twice—as though stunned, and her amazing smile slid to an all-out grin. Is she thinking the same thing I am? Dimples peeked out from her cheeks. Garrett hadn’t thought this blue-eyed girl could look more beautiful, but she just did.
“Well? How’s it look out there?” Rhett asked impatiently.
Garrett ignored Rhett’s voice, mesmerized by the beauty in the third row who was obviously amused by his stare. Someone called to Blue Eyes from the row behind, and she turned away. The spell was broken.
“Come here a minute.”
“I can’t,” Rhett argued. “I’m not supposed to see the bride before the wedding.”
“Lily’s not here yet. Come here.”
“Wow,” Rhett said softly, peering over Garrett’s shoulder. “The church is filling up fast.”
Unwilling to relinquish his spot at the cracked door, Garrett asked, “Who’s the girl at the end of the third row?”
Rhett shifted for a better look. “Third row? Oh, that’s Andi Ryan, a college friend of Lily’s from Florida Atlantic. Lily didn’t go away to school, so she didn’t have a lot of college friends. I met Andi after Lily’s wedding shower. Why do you—”
Garrett felt Rhett’s stare, ignored it. Come on, Blue Eyes, smile for me again.
“Well, damn,” Rhett said softly. “I know that look. Had it myself the first time I clapped eyes on Lily.”
“What?” That got Garrett’s attention. “No. No, I just wondered, um, who she was.”
“Why are you two peeking through the door?” Aidan Cross asked, entering the vestry from the outside door. “Do you know how goofy you two look?”
“Yes, I do. We were checking the crowd.” Rhett pulled the door shut in Garrett’s face.
“So, what were you two gawking at? Do I need a peek?”
“No. Apparently, everyone we invited is going to attend. The place is filling up, and no one needs another look-see,” he said, ignoring the glare Garrett cast his way.
“Not everyone is attending,” Aidan said cheerfully. “Chester Armstead and Delia aren’t coming.”
Rhett rounded on him. “They weren’t invited, and you know it.”
“Take it easy. I come bearing gifts.” Aidan held up an open bottle of champagne he’d had behind his back and tugged three plastic flutes from his tuxedo pocket.
Aidan grinned at Rhett. “I heisted them from your limo.”
“Are you nuts? Bringing champagne into the pastor’s study?”
“Hey, stop yelling. We kissed and made up over me helping you save Lily’s nursery. And I gave you a half share of my Cypress Key project as penance.”
Rhett rolled his eyes.
“Good thinking.” Garrett reached for a glass. “Rhett could use a glass to calm him down.”
“I don’t need calming. I just don’t like hearing about the Armsteads on my wedding day.” Rhett scowled at him, but took Aidan’s proffered flute and downed half of it.
Garrett chuckled and got another scowl from the groom.
Today, Rhett Buchanan was marrying Lily Foster, his fairy-tale princess, in the biggest Jupiter Island wedding of the year. After the couple’s rocky start and Rhett losing Lily twice—thanks to Delia Armstead’s shenanigans—he had whisked Lily off to Vegas one evening when he’d coaxed her back for the third time. He’d been unwilling to take any more chances with their future, but he had promised the love of his life a big church wedding later with all the trimmings, and today was the day.
Dressed in their tailored tuxedoes, Garrett and Aidan were standing up for Rhett. Both had played matchmaker for the happy couple, and Garrett now played best man along with Aidan as groomsman for the biggest day in their friend’s life.
Aidan unfortunately never knew when to keep his mouth shut. “So, what did happen with Delia?”
Rhett chugged the other half of his champagne. “You mean after her father Baker-Acted her into a primo private mental hospital before the police could get to her?” he growled.
“Yeah. What then?”
Aidan had his own reasons for hating Delia Armstead, after she played Aidan against Rhett in her plot to steal Lily’s land. Aidan had warned Rhett in time, but promised Delia retribution for her duplicity.
“She couldn’t avoid the police or prosecution for the assault charge, but Chester raked in every favor he had coming from local and state politicians and legal folks to keep her out of Chattahoochee, and managed to substitute Chappington, the private facility in Miami, for her incarceration.”
“She’s still under lock and key,” Garrett pointed out.
“But not far enough from Lily to suit me,” Rhett grumbled.
Delia Armstead had consorted with her father Chester to steal the property where Lily owned and operated her landscape nursery. Delia had always wanted Rhett for herself, and when Rhett fell in love with Lily, Delia had attempted to physically eliminate her competition. Rhett saved Lily in time, but Delia escaped, and the three friends hadn’t seen her since, though Rhett had his attorneys keeping watch on the witch.
“The moon isn’t far enough away to put Delia to suit you,” Aidan said and finally got a grin out of Rhett.
Garrett grabbed the champagne bottle and refilled their glasses. “Is this illegal to drink champagne in the pastor’s office?”
Aidan shrugged. “Nah, he’s Lutheran. Pastor Mark will just be glad the groom is calm and won’t pass out during the ceremony.”
Garrett’s pocket loudly buzzed in the quiet room with an incoming text.
“I told you, no cell phones,” Rhett said, and glared at Garrett’s pants. “Lily made me promise.”
Garrett checked the readout, a text from his grandfather’s personal assistant that said only, Call me ASAP.
Everything was ASAP with Halbert Horton, Samuel Tucker’s personal assistant for more than a decade. Halbert doted on Garrett’s grandfather. If Sam wanted a cup of coffee, Halbert got it ASAP. Garrett pocketed his phone.
Rhett’s glare softened. “Everything all right?”
“Just Halbert wanting a call back ASAP.”
“Oh.” Rhett went back to pacing, and the three best friends resumed their wait for the wedding ceremony to begin.
“Maybe I’ll just check the crowd again,” Garrett said.
“Get away from that door,” Rhett said, stepping in front of him. “Focus. You’re about to be my best man, and I don’t want you screwing up.”
“What’s on the other side of that door?” Aidan wanted to know.
“Nothing!” Rhett and Garrett barked in unison.
Garrett focused on the ceremony as Rhett had ordered. He had the ring ready when asked, smiled for five hundred pictures, made the perfect wedding-couple toast, and didn’t step on Tammy’s toes when he led the maid of honor out for the bridesmaids’ dance.
All of that out of the way, Garrett concentrated on getting a beer from the bar and finding his blue-eyed beauty in the crowded hotel ballroom where the wedding guests had adjourned after the ceremony. He had spotted Blue Eyes surrounded by a large cluster of people near the back door, right before he marched up to the microphone for his big toast. Now, he couldn’t find her, but he knew who could.
Waiting till Rhett was pulled away from his bride by one of their bankers, Garrett tugged Lily out of earshot of nearby guests. “I need a favor, Lil.”
“You were amazing today, Garrett,” gushed the beaming bride. “Your toast was so sweet.”
He rolled his eyes. “Guys’ toasts aren’t sweet.”
“Come down out of the clouds for a minute and pay attention, Lily. My favor?”
“Anything for Rhett’s best man.”
He stifled another eye roll. If anybody deserved to be over-the-moon happy, it was Lily Foster. “I want you to introduce me to one of your friends.”
“Really? Which one?”
Her smile evaporated.
“What’s wrong? You don’t want me to meet her?”
“No, I do, but she’s gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean gone? You mean left the wedding?”
“No, Garrett. Left the state. She had to take off right before your toast. She’s on her way to Mississippi and has a long drive ahead of her.”
“What’s in Mississippi?” He couldn’t believe Blue Eyes had given him the slip. “When will she be back?”
“I’m not sure. She said at least a week, maybe a little longer. She went to Mississippi to take care of her godmother who needs her.”
“What’s with the scowl, Hotshot?” Rhett asked, sliding an arm around his wife and kissing her cheek. “You look like someone just stole your Corvette.”
“He wanted to meet one of my friends, but she’s already left,” Lily said, as she moved off to greet wedding guests who had called to her.
Rhett eyed him. “Third row at the end?”
Garrett nodded again, and his pocket buzzed.
“I thought I told you to shut that thing off,” Rhett groused.
“Why does everyone look so solemn?” Aidan sauntered over. “This is a wedding. Everyone is supposed to be overjoyed.”
“Hotshot here got shut out on meeting the girl of his dreams,” Rhett said, chuckling. When Garrett glared, he added, “Go ahead and check your phone. Might make you feel better.”
He slipped the phone out, thumbed it open, and read the text.
Then read it again.
“What the hell?” Aidan grabbed his arm. “You went a little pale there, bud. You’re wobbling.”
“What is it?” Rhett moved to his side.
Garrett kept staring at the text. His legs suddenly felt numb, and his lungs wouldn’t work.
He couldn’t believe it. His grandfather might have some unique challenges, but he was strong as an ox.
Aidan slipped the phone from Garrett’s hand and read aloud, “You are needed in Vegas immediately. Your grandfather had a stroke. He didn’t . . . make it. Halbert Horton,” Aidan finished quietly.
Rhett squeezed Garrett’s shoulder.
“He put that in a text?” Aidan growled. “He couldn’t call you on your cell?”
“Halbert is Grandfather’s personal assistant. He never calls. He texts everything, wants a written record,” Garrett said flatly, shoving at the pain trying to pummel him.
“I’m sorry,” Rhett murmured. “I’ll charter you a plane. You better get going.”
Garrett frowned at him. “I’m your best man. I’m not going anywhere. Grandfather’s gone. I’ll leave for Vegas later tonight.”
Rhett and Aidan exchanged glances.
“Garrett, I’ll understand,” Rhett said.
“No!” he half-shouted.
“Easy, partner,” Aidan soothed. “Look, you and I will take my jet to Vegas after the reception. I’ll call my pilot and have him fuel it. We can be there by morning.”
“No,” Garrett argued. “I don’t need you. I can do this myself.”
He was being an ass, and he knew it. He just didn’t know how to stop. The pain in his heart and the feeling of complete helplessness made him crazy. His beloved grandfather was gone.
No, don’t think about that now.
This was his best friend’s big day, the day Rhett had planned for months. No way would Garrett spoil it. Rhett had looked out for him for fifteen years, and Garrett owed him. He would shove the grief down deep until he was alone.
He stared at the concerned faces of his two best friends. Aidan wouldn’t back off, and Rhett wouldn’t let him. Rhett had to leave on his official honeymoon tonight and wouldn’t go unless he knew Garrett had been taken care of. He would do the same thing for Rhett or Aidan. He gave a resigned nod. He loved his two friends like brothers, but damn he wanted to be alone tonight with his grief. He had just lost the most important person in his world.
The ride from Jupiter to Biloxi seemed interminable to Andi. She had left Jupiter late and was paying for it now. Her dashboard clock edged closer to four a.m., and she felt every hour of the long car ride.
With so much time to think, her mind continually hovered on the handsome groomsman she had seen at Lily’s wedding, and she regretted not having a chance to meet him. Lily had been so wrapped up with her wedding guests when Andi left, she had only taken the time to hug her friend goodbye.
“Should at least have asked Lily what his name was,” she muttered. Her imagination yearned for a name to go with the handsome face. She rolled her eyes.
Listen to yourself. You’d think this was love at first sight.
Of course, that would explain why she couldn’t stop thinking about the guy and that mega-watt smile of his.
“No,” she said aloud. “That’s ridiculous. That’s the stuff of fairy tales.”
Besides, he could be a jerk like some of the guys she had dated in her consulting firm. She had already given up on dating accountants. Two persnickety, detail-strangled accountants in one relationship never worked. With her luck, the wedding hunk was an accountant, too.
Better to just forget all about him. Two breaths and a heartbeat later, her mind conjured up—again—the image of him smiling at her through the crack in the vestry door. That smile had been for her.
She jumped when her ringing cell phone devoured the silence in her car.
“Are you close, dear?”
The sound of her aunt’s voice brought an immediate smile. “What are you doing awake at this hour, Aunt Flora?”
“I took a nap after dinner in the off chance you would drive straight through.”
Her aunt knew her better than anyone.
“I’m on I-10 past Mobile and almost to the border.”
“So, you did drive straight through.” Flora’s voice vibrated with excitement.
“I got my second wind around Tallahassee and decided to keep going. I was just about to call you. I can be there by four-thirty. Sorry it’s so late.”
“Don’t be silly. I’d wait up all night for you, just like I used to when you went on dates in high school.”
Flora Merrywether was Andi’s godmother and not a blood relation, but she was as close to Andi as any aunt could be and had raised her after Andi’s father had died. At fourteen, Andi had been devastated to find herself orphaned and alone in the world. Within days, Flora had arrived, packed up her goddaughter, and taken her home to shower her with as much love as any mother could.
“And I knew better than to straggle in late. So, I’ll be there in about a half hour or so.”
“I’m so looking forward to your visit, but I better give you my new address for that fancy map program of yours in your smartphone.”
“New address? What new address?” Andi shifted over to the right lane as a tractor-trailer’s headlights stormed up behind her. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, I needed to downsize. My house was getting a little big for me to take care of.”
What? We just bought your Biloxi house eighteen months ago.
When Andi Ryan had gone to live with her godmother following the death of Andi’s father, Flora had promptly sold her house in Savannah and moved the two of them to south Florida. “To be near the beach,” Flora had said.
She had rescued Andi from the care of her conniving, soulless stepmother and welcomed her goddaughter into her home and into her heart, putting her own life on hold to raise Andi. Aunt Flora had filled the aching void left by the death of her mother and father in the span of six years—filled it with love, laughter, compassion, and a never-ending curiosity about life in general.
Her aunt had worked two jobs to be sure Andi received a college education without steep student loans. After Andi graduated and landed a high-paying position with her consulting firm, she sent Flora money every month to make her retirement easier. When Andi finally bought her own place, her aunt sold their Florida home and moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, which she said, “was the cheapest state in the union to retire in and still have a beach.”
Andi had helped Flora pick out a comfortable home and taken time off from her job to move her aunt to Mississippi. She owed her aunt everything and couldn’t imagine what her life would have been like without Flora Merrywether. Especially after Jacob Ryan had changed his will at the last minute and left everything to Madelyn Wentworth Ryan, Andi’s stepmother. Every. Single. Thing.
She could still remember that fateful meeting with Madelyn and the attorney following the death of her father.
Irene appeared in the doorway of Andi’s attic bedroom. Her stepsister was the last person she wanted to see right now.
Lip curled in a sneer, Irene glanced around the room. “I don’t think I’ve ever been up here.”
She didn’t look up.
“Mama wants to see you in Stepdaddy’s study right now.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Mama said now. And we’re going to want coffee and a plate of cookies or pound cake, so snap to it.”
Andi finally looked up and tried to remember if her stepsister had ever been nice to her. “Why? Who’s here?”
Irene smirked. “The lawyer. He brought Jacob’s will.”
Andi felt the sting of tears start all over again.
Daddy, why did you have to leave me?
“Better wash your face first. Your eyes are all puffy, and your nose is red.”
Why did you have to leave me with them?
Andi went into the tiny attic bathroom to splash cold water on her face and hoped her stepsister had gone downstairs. The house dated back to the early nineteenth century, and the attic had once been servants’ quarters. Jacob Ryan loved old houses, and he had renovated this Victorian after he had renovated the nineteenth-century Dogwood Inn. Magazines had praised his efforts, and the Inn had won awards.
The Inn had also brought Jacob and Andi’s stepmother together. Madelyn had vacationed at the beautiful Dogwood Inn and never left. Jacob Ryan had shocked his then twelve-year-old daughter when he suddenly remarried, and his new wife arrived as a package deal, with two ready-made stepsisters, Irene and Fae, who weren’t interested in having a new sister. The three moved in, and Andi moved to the attic bedroom, happy to get away from the spoiled girls her father had happily accepted as his own.
“Irene told you not to dawdle,” her stepmother snapped when Andi entered her father’s study. “You wasted our lawyer’s valuable time.”
Madelyn Wentworth Ryan had seduced Jacob with her beauty and sweet disposition, only one of which had ever been apparent to Andi. Unless her father was in the room. Madelyn had made it her mission in life to get every man she met to fawn over her.
She now turned her heart-stopping smile on the attorney. “Go ahead,” she urged.
Jacob’s long-time attorney, Zachary Mollette, nodded at Andi, but avoided eye contact.
She took a seat on an antique settee next to stepsister Fae and was soon thankful she had. The contents of her father’s will would have knocked her feet from beneath her.
Mollette sped through the traumatic reading in a monotone, never looking up, though Andi stared at him in disbelief. Jacob Ryan, her beloved father, had made no arrangements for his daughter in his will.
None. How could that be?
Andi fought the trembling in her legs. When Mollette finished, she blurted, “Are you sure?”
Finally, the attorney met her gaze, his own overwhelmed with regret. “I didn’t prepare this final draft, but it’s his signature. I checked, Andi, and made sure. Jacob left everything to Madelyn.”
Irene made a weak attempt to stifle her grin. Fae gave Andi’s shoulder a weak pat and received a stern look from Madelyn, who said, “I’m sure Jacob never thought he would die until you were older and out on your own, when you wouldn’t need him.”
Hot tears stung the back of Andi’s eyelids. I would always have needed him.
“But, he did know,” she told Madelyn. “He fought the cancer for a whole year.”
Her stepmother shrugged. “Jacob always thought he would get better.”
Andi couldn’t help it. She felt betrayed. Her father had to know he was going to die, and yet he hadn’t made any plans for his only child’s care.
Madelyn was on her feet. Any discussion was over, and she escorted the attorney to the door. When she returned ten minutes later, she dropped the final bomb.
“I’ve called your godmother. She will be over after dinner to pick you up.”
“Pick me up?” she asked weakly.
“When I called her to tell her about Jacob’s will, Flora insisted on coming to get you. Now, go pack up your things. She’ll be here in a couple of hours. You’re going to go live with her.”
That night, Andi left the only home she had ever known.
Panic suddenly hit Andi hard, and she gripped the cell phone so tight her knuckles hurt. “You’re not sick, are you, Aunt Flora?”
“No, dear. I’m fine. I just needed a smaller house.”
“You’d tell me if you were sick, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, dear. Don’t worry.”
Of course, she would worry. Jacob hadn’t told his daughter about his cancer for months. Not until he had reached stage four.
“You will love this new house,” her aunt assured her.
I loved the other one we picked out.
“You can see a bit of Back Bay from your bedroom window. And best of all, it’s across the street from the Bayou Princess Casino.”
Best of all? A casino?
“You did good tonight, Garrett.” Aidan settled into one of the oversized seats in his private jet, a custom Gulfstream G650. “You danced with several pretty girls, including Tammy, and made everyone think you were having a good time.”
On autopilot, as he had been all evening, Garrett collapsed in the seat across the aisle and nodded. He hadn’t allowed himself to accept yet that Samuel Garrett Tucker, for whom he had been named, was no longer walking the earth with the rest of them. Angels had come and carried Sam home.
At least that was how Garrett had always envisioned death. An angel showed up, crooked a finger, and escorted you out. Just like that. When he had shared his notion with Sam, as he did most ideas or plans, his grandfather had called him fanciful and said he wasn’t sure Episcopalians bought into that transport plan.
Aidan waved a hand in front of his face. “Earth to Garrett. Where’d you go there? You were with me, then you weren’t.”
Garrett tried to smile, failed miserably, and gave up. “Lot on my mind.”
“Don’t you worry. We’ll work through everything.” Aidan signaled the sole flight attendant on board. “Hustle us up two scotch rocks before we take off, please.”
She was back in minutes and handed one to Garrett. He took a deep slug and relished the burn down his throat. He’d had only one beer at the reception, fearful if he had more, he would give in to the grief trying to claw free of the compartment where he’d shoved it.
Thankfully, Aidan fell silent and sipped his own drink as the plane taxied and took off. Garrett thought he might have escaped an inquisition when his friend closed his eyes, but the reprieve did not last long.
“So, what are we going to do first when we get to Vegas?”
“Find Halbert. Find out what happened. I can’t believe my grandfather’s really gone.” He took another pull of the single-malt scotch to push the lump back down his throat. “He was always so big and full of life.”
“I appreciate you flying me to Vegas, Aidan, but—”
“But nothing. What are friends for? Rhett would be here, too, if he wasn’t leaving on his honeymoon. And don’t cuss, but he told me to look after you.”
Garrett laughed instead. “He looks after me like I’m a little girl.”
“It’s not like that.”
“I know,” he said softly. “And . . . I am glad you’re here. I didn’t really want to do this funeral and final arrangements alone.”
“What about your parents? Won’t they be there?”
Garrett let loose a long, resigned sigh. “I doubt it, and before you ask, that’s a long story for another time and another bottle of scotch.”
Aidan reclined his seat and closed his eyes again. “I’ll hold you to that. Meanwhile, we’ll go to Vegas, square things away, and get back to Florida.”
“About that . . . I may be in Vegas a while.”
Aidan frowned. His eyes stayed closed. “You don’t have a while. You need to get back to Florida. You have a job there, remember? BDC—you and Rhett—steals development parcels from Cross Enterprises, and I steal BDC parcels from you and Rhett. It’s what we do.”
“I have to take care of things for my grandfather. I’ve told you before, I am his only grandchild, and Sam said he left everything to me. I don’t imagine that’s changed.” Garrett rattled the cubes and took another drink of his scotch.
“I remember,” Aidan said. “So, you go to Vegas, find someone to run your grandfather’s casino, and then you fly back home with me. Things get back to normal. End of story.”
“Casinos as in plural?” Aidan perked up. Eyes opened. “He owned more than one?”
“Yes. He owned more than one and investments in others.”
“No kidding. Still, that shouldn’t take too long. With the two of us, we should be able to get a couple casinos buttoned up on autopilot pretty quick.”
Garrett grinned. “Think so?”
“Yeah, why not?” Aidan looked wary.
“Ever heard of the Prince of Vegas?”
“Sure, everyone has. The recluse billionaire no one ever sees—like Howard Hughes—who owns a bunch of Vegas casinos outright and pieces and parts of the rest.”
Garrett regarded his friend steadily.
“No way!” Aidan wheezed softly. “You’re bluffing like always.”
He slowly shook his head.
“Holy hell! Your grandfather was the Prince of Vegas?”