Sample text for A Proposal at the wedding / Gina Wilkins.

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Th e farmers' market bustled with shoppers on this warm Tuesday morning in early July. Bonnie Car-michael browsed the outdoor displays of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, occasionally making purchases and adding the bounty to the increasingly heavy canvas bags dangling from her arms. She should have brought her little wheeled market trolley, she thought with a shake of her head. She'd told herself that not having it with her would make her less likely to purchase too much, but instead she was simply juggling bulging bags.

She loved visiting the farmers' market, surrounded by the bright colors of fresh produce, cut flowers, handcrafted pottery and jewelry, the scents of fresh-baked bread and pastries, the sounds of chattering shoppers and busking musicians. The market was even more active on Saturdays, but it was hard for her to get away on weekends from the bed-and-breakfast she co-owned and operated with her two older siblings. She was the chef at the inn, so shopping was both her responsibility and her pleasure. She came to the market regularly enough that most of the vendors knew her by name.

She was chatting with a local organic farmer, lifting a plump heirloom tomato for an appreciative sniff, when someone bumped hard against her arm, having been jostled by someone else in the milling crowd. The tomato fell to her feet with a squishy thump.

"I'm so sorry," a man said immediately, his voice coming from approximately a foot above her head. "Are you okay?"

She looked up to assure him no harm was done, but felt the words freeze on her tongue when she recognized Paul Drennan.

This just couldn't be happening again.

Twice, Bonnie had run into Paul-literally-at the inn in the Virginia Blue Ridge Highlands. The first time she'd met him, in May, she'd carried a box of stainless steel wine bottle stoppers that had scattered around her when she'd landed on the floor. He'd been with his twenty-one-year-old daughter, Cassie, who was planning an August wedding on the grounds of the inn, and Bonnie had been mortified to crash into a client. The second incident a few weeks later had been his fault; he'd been talking over his shoulder while walking and had barreled into her, though she'd managed not to fall that time.

It should have come as no surprise that the next time she encountered him, only a couple of weeks later, it would be with another collision. Or that once again she was as jarred by her immediate and powerful attraction to him as by the physical contact. Something about this man had taken her breath away the first time she'd looked up at him from the floor where she'd landed. She'd felt a spark between them when he'd offered his hand to help her to her feet, a cliched reaction she hadn't expected, but had seemed very real, all the same. Apparently, nothing had changed. Her pulse tripped again in response to seeing him here.

Beneath a thick shock of dark auburn hair touched with a few white strands at the temples, Paul's jade-green eyes lit with a smile that meandered more slowly to his firm lips, drawing her attention there. "If this keeps happening, you're going to file a protection order against me," he said in the deep voice she remembered so well from those other two brief meetings. She'd heard it a few times in her daydreams since, she thought sheepishly. "I swear I'm not actually targeting you."

"I believe you," she assured him with a weak laugh. "It is getting rather funny, though, isn't it?"

Using a paper towel given to him by the vendor, he quickly cleaned up the half-smashed tomato. "I'll pay for that one," he promised the good-natured farmer, who waved off the offer.

Handing some bills to the vendor, Bonnie accepted a bag of pretty little multicolored heirloom tomatoes in exchange. When she fumbled a bit with the new bag, Paul reached out to help. "Let me carry a couple of those sacks."

He divested her of all but the smallest of the bulging bags before she could even respond. As he did, she smiled up at him-way up. She estimated him to be perhaps six feet three inches, in marked contrast to her own five feet three inches. The flat sandals she wore with her scoop neck mint top and summer print skirt gave her no extra height. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. How's business at Bride Mountain Inn?" Paul asked as he shuffled with her through the throng to the next booth.

"The past few weeks have been hectic with June weddings," she replied. "And July hasn't slowed down much." Trying to focus on her reason for being here, rather than the man who'd unexpectedly become her shopping assistant, she examined a crookneck squash in a display basket.

"Being busy with weddings is a good thing, right?"

"Absolutely." Though she'd already bought so much, she couldn't resist picking out a few squash.

"Those look good," Paul said, nodding toward her selections. "I like squash, but I don't know how to prepare them."

"Oh, they're easy to cook," she assured him. Her momentary self-consciousness dissipated with this subject she could discuss comfortably. "Very versatile, baked, grilled, steamed or even raw in salads."

She didn't know if Paul had any interest at all in cooking, but he nodded attentively. "I like them all those ways. Just haven't tried cooking them myself. Do you have time to help me select a few? I'll look up some recipes online."

"Of course." Speaking briskly and casually, as she would with just anyone who'd asked for her help, rather than a man who happened to make her toes curl in her sandals, she gave him a quick lesson on checking the stems, skin and heft-weight for ripeness and freshness.

She watched as he paid for four then stuffed them into his own market bag. A price tag still hung from one strap, making her suspect he'd purchased it when he'd arrived. It appeared to be almost empty.

Seeing the direction of her attention, he chuckled. "I guess you can tell I'm new at this sort of shopping. My daughter has been lecturing me lately about eating better, so I figured this was as good a place as any to buy a few healthy ingredients. I usually just throw bags of frozen vegetables in the microwave to eat with whatever meat I've cooked on the grill. Or I have takeout. But Cassie's staying with me for the next few weeks until her wedding, so I'm trying to be a little more health-conscious when it's my turn to cook."

"You sound like my brother. If I didn't cook dinner for him fairly often, he'd live on spaghetti with sauce from a jar, or grilled steaks and microwaved potatoes."

Paul's crooked smile was undeniably charming. "I've eaten more than my share of both those meals."

Someone cleared her throat rather loudly, making Bonnie aware that she was blocking access to the squash. She'd completely lost track of where she was and what she'd been doing while she'd admired Paul's smile. Murmuring a quick apology, she moved aside, followed again by Paul.

He motioned toward a little coffee shop near the market where several outdoor tables beneath colorful umbrellas invited a leisurely chat. "May I buy you a cup of coffee? Or do you have to rush back to the inn?"

She hesitated before answering. He'd given her the perfect excuse, but she really wasn't in a hurry to get back. Rhoda and Sandy, her full-time and part-time housekeepers, were taking care of things back at the inn. Even during this busy season, Tuesdays were typically slower-paced days, giving Bonnie a weekly opportunity to escape for a few hours.

While there were advantages to living in the inn's private basement apartment, it gave her the feeling sometimes of being at work 24/7. She'd made a promise to herself recently that she'd start going out more, cultivating a social life away from the inn and her siblings, out of the rut she'd fallen into during the past few years. A friendly coffee with one of the inn's clients wasn't exactly a groundbreaking departure from the norm, but it was a start. It didn't hurt, of course, that this particular client was so very nice to look at across a table.

"I don't have to rush back," she said. "Coffee sounds good. Just let me put these bags in my car."

He followed her to the parking lot where she'd left her dependable sedan and helped her stash her purchases. Then she accompanied him to the coffee shop, claiming a recently vacated outdoor table while he went inside to order. He returned carrying a black coffee for himself and the fat-free iced latte she'd requested in deference to the building heat of the day. She'd declined his offer of a snack, but he'd bought a cookie for himself.

"It's oatmeal raisin," he said with an appealingly sheepish grin as he unwrapped it. "That's healthy, right?"

Because there didn't seem to be an ounce of fat on his solid frame-something she had noticed more than once-she doubted his diet was as bad as he'd claimed earlier. "Sure," she teased lightly. "Keep telling yourself that."

He chuckled and took a big bite of the cookie, washing it down with a sip of his coffee. "I'll make up for it at dinner tonight," he said. "I'm eating with my daughter's other family. Holly-my daughter's mom-always cooks something fancy and healthy."

Bonnie had briefly met Cassie's mother, Holly Bauer, and her husband, Larry, at that first pre-wed-ding meeting back in May. As she remembered, the relationship between them all had been quite cordial.

"It's nice that you and your ex-wife get along so well," she commented somewhat tentatively. "We've dealt with some very awkward situations at a couple of weddings at the inn when exes refused to be seated near each other or to even acknowledge the other parent's presence."

"Holly and I were never married," Paul admitted. "I was only eighteen and Holly not even quite that when Cassie was born-she'd skipped a grade to graduate a year earlier than most. We were the stereotypical high school sweethearts who slipped up on prom night, I'm afraid. We stopped trying to be a couple during our freshman year of college, though we've remained good friends."

"I see." She'd figured Paul looked young for his age, considering he had a twenty-one-year-old daughter, but now she knew he really was younger than she'd thought. Thirty-nine? Only eleven years older than her twenty-eight, rather than the fifteen years or more she'd estimated. "And still Holly became an attorney. Good for her."

"Yeah. She refused to let one night's bad decision derail her dreams. She had a lot of help from her family, and from me, and from my mother during the first two years of Cassie's life, but Holly worked her butt off to finish her education and still be a good mom. She earned her undergraduate degree in three years, then entered law school. A law school friend introduced her to Larry, and they married when Cassie was almost six. Their twins were born a year after that."

"Holly sounds amazing. It's nice that you've stayed friendly for Cassie's sake."

"It's been for my sake, too," he assured her. What might have been wistfulness momentarily clouded his eyes when he explained, "I lost both my parents fairly young. Holly and Larry have been generous enough to include me in their family so that I was able to be a big part of Cassie's life-and of the twins', for that matter. They call me Uncle Paul. They've spent almost as many weekends with me as Cassie has.

"Larry's a really great guy," he added quickly, "but he's a brainy engineer who has no interest in sports or outdoor activities, so I was the one who taught Cassie and the twins how to throw a ball and cast a line and ride a horse. I guess some people would consider it an odd arrangement, but it's worked very well for us."

Bonnie thought it was rather charming, though she couldn't help wondering how other women in Paul's life felt about him remaining so close to his daughter's mother. She could see how it might be intimidating for an outsider to try to make a place for herself in that cozy arrangement. Was there a woman in Paul's life now? She could think of no subtle way to ask.

She really had been too narrowly focused on the inn for the past few years, she thought ruefully. It would be three years in October since she and her brother and sister had inherited the place from their late, maternal great-uncle, and the first of November would mark their second anniversary of reopening to guests after a year of renovations. Those three years had been busy and challenging, leaving little time for a social life. She'd almost forgotten how to flirt, and she could hardly remember the last time she'd gone beyond flirtation. It was definitely time to address that situation. She had even considered signing up with an online dating service.

She supposed she could consider this impromptu coffee break as practice…or maybe a possible beginning? Paul had certainly remained in her thoughts after their previous meetings.

"It sounds as though Cassie and her siblings had a close extended support system," she said, trying to stay focused on the conversation. "That had to be good for them."

Paul nodded, his expression suddenly hard to read. "Yeah. It's been great. But a lot of things are changing. For Cassie and for me."

With a slight shake of his head, he reached again for his cookie before she could decide how to respond. "I don't usually tell my life story over coffee, but since you'll be helping us with the wedding arrangements, I figured you'd want to know you don't have to go out of your way to accommodate the bride's parents. Nor do you have to worry about anything unpleasant occurring during the event. We're cool with whatever works best for Cassie and the wedding planner."

Bonnie chuckled. "That is very helpful. But I have little to do with the actual wedding ceremony. My sister handles the arrangements with the planner and the subcontractors. I take care of the inn itself-hosting overnight guests, preparing and serving breakfast six days a week, Sunday brunch and a light supper Sunday evening, and any special food orders not handled by an outside caterer. Our brother takes care of the grounds. He'll hang special lights or put up torches or garland or whatever else Cassie wants for decorations."

"You have your responsibilities well-defined."

"When you're dealing with siblings, that's the best plan of action," she said, knowing Logan and Kinley, her brother and sister, would heartily agree.

He laughed. "I can imagine."

Kinley and Logan had been a bit hesitant about the massive undertaking of refurbishing and reopening a 1930sera inn that had been closed to guests for eighteen years before it had been willed to them, especially considering the state of the economy at the time. Great-uncle Leo Finley had done his best to keep the place up but it had become too much for him to do more than basic maintenance. After he'd lost his dear wife, Helen, who had been his longtime partner in both life and business, he hadn't had the heart to keep their inn running. But neither had he been able to sell the establishment his own father had built and operated for years. Leo's will had bequeathed the inn and a sizable life insurance policy equally to his great nieces and nephew, with full permission for them to do with it as they wished-though he'd known it was Bonnie's lifelong dream to reopen it.

Bonnie had begged and cajoled her brother and sister into investing everything they had-financially, emotionally, physically-into restoring their heritage. Or as her sister termed it, she had "bullied" them into it. Bonnie knew her petite blonde appearance could be deceptive. She might look like a pushover, but when she set her mind on something, she could be tenacious.

With her degree and experience in hotel management, Kinley's marketing and sales background, and Logan's computer training and eclectic interests in landscaping and construction, she had assured her siblings they had a fighting chance for success. What was the worst that could happen? she'd asked. Bankruptcy? A hard pill to swallow, but they could recover from that eventually, as long as they had each other.

Maybe that final argument had been a little cheesy, but it had worked.

"We're pleased that Cassie chose the inn as the venue for her wedding," she said sincerely. "I promise we'll all do our best to make the experience everything she hopes for."

"I'm sure you will. Cassie said she had a good feeling about the inn the first time she saw it."

"I'm glad. She seems like a sweetheart."

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Hotelkeepers -- Fiction.
Weddings -- Fiction.
Weddings -- Planning -- Fiction.
Marriage proposals -- Fiction.
Interpersonal attraction -- Fiction.
Man-woman relationships -- Fiction.
Virginia -- Fiction.