“This one here. Is this a lily of the valley?”
“Um…” Lilah stuttered, praying for some flower enthusiast to spontaneously walk by. “Well, actually, I think it’s quite lovely. It looks so fresh and happy there, doesn’t it?” she attempted lamely.
Chrissy pinned her with a dubious stare before rolling her blue eyes. “Whatever. I don’t really care what it’s called but I want this flower in my bouquet. Make a note,” she commanded.
Lilah suppressed an urge to make a note about possible hit men in the Washington, D.C. area. Instead, she took a picture of the flower in question with her phone and made a corresponding note. Flowers really weren’t her thing. She knew dandelions, roses and, well, dead, since that’s how all living plants ended up in her apartment.
Chrissy let out an annoyed whine before moving on. The one good thing about Lilah’s current bridezilla, er client, was that her attention changed every second. “Where’s Perry? I mean, ohmigod, we have so much to do.”
“I believe your fiancé said he was meeting his best man out front and would be back in a couple of minutes,” Lilah supplied.
“But that was like ten minutes ago. Doesn’t he realize how busy I am? I mean, I have like a million things to do today.”
None of which involve a real job, school or anything remotely adult, Lilah thought with a silent sigh. She did suppose that swiping daddy’s credit card took some energy. At least at the rate Chrissy used it.
“I still have to go to the gym and get my nails done,” Chrissy continued her rant.
Chrissy Pendleton was the cherished daughter of one of the area’s wealthiest families. Did she say cherished? She meant spoiled. Chrissy was getting married in two months and it was Lilah’s job to plan the happy day.
Unfortunately, she had to adhere to every single wish and whim of Chrissy because that same adoring father was also her boss at Wyatt & Associates, the event planning firm where she worked. But Lilah didn’t typically plan weddings. She worked as the Assistant Director of Corporate Events. But if she had any hope of moving up to director, she needed to comply with her boss and his bratty daughter.
“It kind of smells out here,” Chrissy said as her perfect nose scrunched up in a look of distaste.
“It’s a garden,” Lilah pointed out. “I thought you wanted to get married in a garden?”
“Um, I did. But I didn’t think about the smell. It’s kind of gross.”
“It’s kind of flowers.” Whoa, Lilah needed to reign in the sarcasm. If she didn’t execute this wedding perfectly, her career at Wyatt & Associates would be on the fast track to nowhere. “Chrissy,” she attempted with her most placating voice. “The Washington Botanical Gardens did a massive favor for you. They moved quite a few events around so you can have your wedding here.”
“Can we cut down any of those flowers over there? I don’t like the colors.” She pointed toward a row of what Lilah thought were perfectly beautiful purple-looking flowers.
“Probably not.” Time to bring out the Chrissy-equivalent of a cookie. “You know, I heard that one of the Kardashians got married in a garden.”
Chrissy raised a single eyebrow. “No, they didn’t. Only Khloe and Kim are married and neither did it in a garden.”
Shit. “Ah, that’s right. I was just testing you. Your knowledge of the Kardashian family is legendary.”
“Isn’t it!” Chrissy preened.
“Um, sure. But I was told by a very reputable source that Khloe actually did have her heart set on getting married in a garden. But because her wedding happened so fast, it couldn’t happen. “ Lilah thanked the heavens that she had watched the E! True Hollywood Story about the Kardashians last week. Of course, the garden part was a lie but at least Chrissy seemed interested now.
“Yep. Just think how jealous she would be of you.
Worked like a charm. Lilah watched Chrissy spin in a circle, now clearly delighted with the garden. All thoughts of bad-smelling flowers gone.
“Well, I still don’t know what’s taking Perry so long. I’ll just go look for him. You stay here,” she bossed.
Aye-aye, Captain Obnoxious. She was only too happy to stay put. Her feet were killing her, she thought as Chrissy pranced away on much higher heels than she wore. How she didn’t fall over was beyond her. Maybe her enormous ego kept her in check.
Now, now, Lilah berated herself. It wasn’t Chrissy’s fault she had been brought up in privilege, or that rich kids tended to make Lilah uncomfortable and insecure.
The fact of the matter remained. Lilah had been tasked to plan Chrissy’s big day and that’s just what she had to do.
When going into event planning, she had specifically shied away from planning weddings. Weddings meant love and romance, two things that Lilah did not want to think about. Her life had no room for romance. She wanted to focus on moving up in her company, not being in a relationship.
The fact that she purposely denied herself the luxury of remembering a certain summer, a particular relationship, and all of that love… well, it had nothing to do with her current path in life. Besides, that ending hadn’t been happy.
As she waited, she plopped down on a wooden bench painted a clean-looking white. She stretched her legs out in front of her and ran a hand through her auburn hair. It was getting a tad long. She made a note in her blackberry to schedule an appointment.
She looked around at the flowers and marveled at their beauty. Even if she really wasn’t a flower person, she still admired the rows of lovely colors and shapes.
The garden was quiet. So she closed her eyes for a moment and her mind instantly transported her back to another garden, another time.
She remembered that summer so vividly. After working long shifts at the country club, waitressing until her feet wanted to fall off, she would meet him in the garden, with the moonlight streaming through the arbor.
More than just stolen kisses, they would talk for hours. He knew everything about her. Aware that she came from the wrong side of the tracks, he encouraged her to go after her dreams. And he knew about each and every one of those too.
By the end of the summer, he had become everything to her. Her first love, her first lover and in the end, her first regret.
She sighed as a breeze filtered through the garden. Opening her eyes, she could still see him so clearly. Tall and handsome, with brownish-blonde hair and light blue eyes.
But when her vision moved, she realized it wasn’t her imagination. Her memories had faded and there, standing five feet away was Drew.
Drew felt like he got sucker-punched in the gut. Seriously, he was staring at Lilah Adler, the girl he had been madly in love with eleven years ago.
When he had walked into the garden, all he saw at first was a gorgeous woman sitting on a bench with her eyes closed. The long auburn hair and porcelain skin drew him toward her. But as he neared the woman he realized she was no stranger. No, he knew this woman. And she had known him like no other.
She popped up from the bench, her binder and blackberry crashing to the ground. But she didn’t bend to retrieve them. Instead, she continued to stare, open-mouthed, much the same as he was probably doing.
Lilah was still short and thin, even with the tall heels she wore. Her legs stood out under the tight skirt of her light pink suit. He had always loved her toned legs, a benefit from her days as a tennis player. But the adolescent body he remembered in his dreams had filled out into lovely curves.
Those curves were sure to set off a whole new wave of dreams.
They still hadn’t said a word to each other. So he reached down and picked up her things. Handing them over, his hand brushed hers and a shock of heat ran up his arm. Looking into her heavily-lashed green eyes, he knew she felt it too.
Before either could utter a word, he heard his cousin’s voice.
“Hey, Drew, you made it.”
Without taking his eyes off Lilah, he answered back, “Sorry I’m late.”
“Oh, Drew, there you are,” came the high-pitched voice of Chrissy. What Perry saw in her escaped him. But it didn’t really matter. He was here to support his only cousin. If he was happy marrying Chrissy, he wouldn’t stand in the way. So long as he was truly happy.
Because Drew knew all about unhappy choices, he thought with one last look at Lilah before turning.
He greeted his cousin with a handshake and accepted the dramatic hug from Chrissy. Introductions were made but he noticed Lilah not only stayed quiet, she didn’t mention they knew each other.
The pain of that slashed through him. Of course, what could he expect? He broke it off with her that summer. He embarrassed her in front of an entire room of people she already felt intimidated by. And when she ran away, he hadn’t gone after her.
The biggest mistake of his life.
As the four of them walked through the garden, the women talking about different options he didn’t fully understand, he allowed himself to reflect in the memories of the first and only girl he ever loved.
At the end of the day, Lilah couldn’t get to the bar fast enough. She was happily meeting with her high school best friend, Penelope Walker. After going to different colleges, they had lost touch. But when Lilah moved to Alexandria, Virginia, last year, the two reconnected.
“I never thought this day would end,” Penelope said as she hugged Lilah.
“Trust me, I know the feeling. I’m having the worst day.”
“I don’t know. My boss’s idiot niece is driving me nuts.” Penelope pulled her dark hair back and secured it with a clip.
I’m working with the world’s most spoiled rich girl.”
Penelope tilted her head. “Rich doesn’t mean better, Lilah.”
“I know. It’s just that…” she stumbled over her words, not sure how much to tell Lilah.
“Rich people still make you feel uncomfortable?” she guessed.
Lilah shook her head. As they ordered a glass of red wine for Penelope and white for herself, she thought back to her afternoon at the Botanical Gardens. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that she ran into the one person she thought she would never see again.
To make matters worse, she hadn’t spoken a word to him and even left without saying goodbye. Not that it mattered, she would be seeing him soon enough. Chrissy and Perry’s engagement party was set for the following night.
After settling in at the upscale bar in Old Town Alexandria, they sipped their wine and caught up on little things. Penelope talked about a new account she was trying to get in her consultant job.
“What do you have going on this weekend?”
Lilah groaned. “Fancy engagement party tomorrow. Actually, you wouldn’t be able to come with me, would you?”
“Wish I could,” Penelope said earnestly. “But my sisters are in town this weekend. A girls weekend. Want to join us on Saturday night?”
“Sure.” She could use a night out to forget about this stupid wedding and Chrissy’s asinine demands. And she definitely needed to get her mind off Drew.
“Okay, random, but do you remember that guy you dated in high school?” Lilah asked.
Penelope cast her eyes down and clasped her hands together.
“I’m sorry, Pen. We don’t have to talk about Ethan if you don’t want to.”
Penelope took a long gulp of wine and signaled to the bartender for another. “No, it’s okay. I just haven’t thought about Ethan Callahan in awhile. Why do you ask?”
“I just remember how jealous I was of you and Ethan.” She laughed at Penelope’s shocked expression. “Seriously. He played on the football team and you were a cheerleader. You guys were so cute.”
“We were so in love,” she said wistfully.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
Penelope thanked the bartender as he refilled her wineglass. “I don’t know if this will make you more jealous or convince you I’m a crazy person, but Ethan and I decided to elope right before college.”
Lilah choked on her wine. Coughing, she managed to eke out, “What? You got married?”
“No, we never married.” The sad look returned to Penelope’s face. “Ethan never showed up to meet me. In fact, I never heard from him again. So I went off to college and I have no idea what happened to him.”
This explained quite a bit actually. Penelope didn’t have the best family situation but her relationship with Ethan had been amazing. Losing that must have devastated her. No wonder she rarely dated now.
Then again, neither did Lilah.
“Still envious of me?” Penelope asked, attempting to smile.
Lilah reached over and squeezed her friend’s hand. “Well, actually, when I went to college I realized I needed to get a job. Even with the tennis scholarship, there were still bills; books and room and board. So I started working at this country club.”
She swirled her wine around in the glass. “The summer after my freshman year, I met this guy.”
“Aha,” Penelope said knowingly.
“He was twenty-one. His family was super wealthy. Old money, you know? They were very prominent members at the club. But Drew, oh he was so dreamy. Gorgeous and funny, I just fell head over heels for him and we spent almost every second together.”
“His family, particularly his father, didn’t exactly know about me. Drew said we needed to keep it secret because they wouldn’t approve.”
“Oh, Lilah,” Penelope said on a sigh.
“It’s okay. Drew said he would come up with a good way to introduce me to them and it would all work out.
“At the end of the summer, the club had this big dance. Black tie, champagne, the whole nine yards. I worked the event. “
She paused, thinking of how good Drew had looked walking toward her in his black tuxedo. He smiled and she knew it would be the night he told his father about her. Her life would change.
And it had. Lilah just hadn’t realized it would change for the worse.
“There was this girl that belonged to the club. Clearly, she was the type of girl Andrew Hamilton, IV, was supposed to be with. Cecilia Van Sutton,” she said with an eye roll.
“Cecilia went to Yale and she was set to inherit an exorbitant amount of money from her family. Drew said he didn’t like her, that he loved me. But I knew his father was pushing the match.”
Penelope continued to listen.
“When Drew walked in the ballroom, I called out his name and started toward him. Very taboo for the wait staff to talk to the members,” she explained. “Then Cecelia came around the corner and linked her arm through Drew. She announced to everyone in the room that I had a little crush on Drew and that I was going around saying we were dating.”
“Both my manager and Drew’s father stared down at me. Drew didn’t say anything. He just kept his mouth shut as the entire room laughed at me, the white trash waitress. Humiliated, I ran out. He never came after me.”
“Wow.” Penelope caught the bartender again and asked for another refill for both of them. “I can’t believe you never told me about this.”
“Honestly, I don’t think I ever got over the embarrassment.” She couldn’t even stop the tear that trickled down her cheek. “Oh, Pen, I saw him today. Drew is the best man at this heinous wedding I’m being forced to plan.”
Penelope hugged her as their wine was being poured. After awhile, she pulled back. “Yep, you are definitely having the worst day.”
Lilah didn’t have time to go to the hairdresser, nail salon and get her makeup done like Chrissy for the engagement party. Instead, she had to settle on changing in the restroom at her office. At least the emerald gown fit her well, she thought, turning back and forth in the mirror. She swiped some blush and mascara on her face, left her hair in loose tresses and grabbed her silver clutch.
Twenty minutes later, she made it to the club, checking that everything was set up and in place. She welcomed her boss and his family of wannabe royals, pointed the way to the event room and listened to yet more of Chrissy’s complaints.
After the majority of guests arrived, she took a moment for herself before heading into the ballroom. Just as she was about to sit down, the door opened and Drew walked through. The fact that he still looked good in a black tuxedo made her want to throw something at him.
He walked directly to her and said, “Lilah, it’s really good to see you.”
“I’m sure it’s just lovely for you to see me. Here, in this empty room, away from the prying eyes of your family and friends.”
Proud of herself, Lilah made to turn. But Drew stopped her.
“Okay, I deserved that. But I mean it, Lilah, I’m really happy to see you.”
She wanted to touch him. If she just reached out she could run her hand along his strong chest, over his broad shoulders or through that thick hair.
Instead, she said, “How’s your father?” Drew didn’t say anything. “Did you stay in touch with that horrible girl, Cecilia?”
He looked down for a second, clearly uncomfortable.
“I married her.”
First Day Cutoff point
Drew watched as all the color drained from Lilah’s face. Damn, he didn’t want to hurt her again. She started to walk away but he grabbed her arm and spun her to him.
“No, you have to listen to me.”
“I don’t have to listen to anything. Let go of me.”
He dropped his hand immediately and watched her storm out a set of side doors. He ran a hand over his face. This wasn’t going how he had hoped at all.
And couldn’t she have looked a little less gorgeous for this?
Without thinking, he ran after her. Following a path lined with cherry blossom trees, he turned to find her in a garden, decorated with twinkle lights.
She turned when she heard his footsteps on the path. He berated himself when he saw the tears in her eyes. They hadn’t started to fall yet so he stepped toward her and drew her into his arms.
She didn’t hug him back. She stood stiff and unmoving. But he continued to embrace her. She smelled just as he remembered, like flowers and rain. Or maybe that was just how a garden smelled. After all, flowers always reminded him of Lilah – they had spent so much time in the garden at the club.
“I’m sorry, Lilah,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
She pushed away but didn’t run from him. Swiping a hand at her eyes, she said in a calm voice, “How could you?” Then she looked away and said under her breath, “But of course you did.”
He stepped toward her and she held her ground. “Where is she tonight?”
And then he realized, Lilah didn’t understand.
“I don’t know. We divorced two years ago.”
Her head snapped up. “Oh.” She played with a delicate necklace around her neck, moving it back and forth. The gesture reminded him of her so much, his heart hurt.
“Did you love her?”
Drew should have been ready for that question but he wasn’t. The truth of his marriage shamed him. But he also knew he had to tell her the truth.
“No, I didn’t love her. I thought we were right for each other.” At her big green eyes, he swore and pushed a hand through his hair. “Christ, Lilah, I was so young. I knew Cecilia my entire life. And my father wanted us to form a union.”
She scrunched up her nose. “Form a union?”
The gesture looked so cute, he actually chuckled. “Lame, I know it. At least, I know it now. I didn’t back then. I just wanted to please him so badly.”
“So you went to law school and became a lawyer, just like he wanted?”
“And you married someone just because he wanted you to?”
“Yes. I’m not proud of it. I’m not proud of a lot. Things didn’t work out between me and Cecelia practically from the beginning. She loved the country club life. I started to look down on it.”
He took her hand and she let him. Progress.
“Cecelia wanted my money and my family’s name. That’s it. She had no idea who I am as a person.”
She opened her mouth, but his cousin’s fiancée burst outside with a string of high-pitched squeals. Lilah appeared to understand them.
“I’m sorry.” She removed her hand from his. “I have to go back to work.”
The sentence held much more weight than he would have liked.
Lilah managed to get through the next couple of weeks. Not only did she see to the final touches for Chrissy’s wedding, but she figured out how to avoid Drew for the most part.
They had talked a couple times. To be honest, he did seem different. He had grown up. And he could still make her laugh.
But every time they started to have a real moment, she pulled back. How could she not? He had been the one person she trusted. He knew her insecurities and when those fears were realized he abandoned her.
But she put all of that out of her mind the day of the wedding. Thank God the weather remained sunny and comfortable. The ceremony went off without a hitch. Lilah stayed in the background seeing to every detail she could think of.
She ran around during photographs and made sure the cocktail hour flowed smoothly. By the time the reception began in the large tented area the Botanical Gardens set up, she was ready for a hot bubble bath and very large glass of wine.
Instead, she ran into Perry in a makeshift waiter station behind the stage where the band played.
“Lilah, you did an amazing job. Today is beautiful. And even if you can’t tell, Chrissy really loves everything.”
She laughed. “Thanks, Perry, I appreciate it.”
“Listen,” he said, lowering his voice. “It’s kinda obvious that you and Drew have some kind of history. I don’t know anything about it but Drew’s a really decent guy. You should give him a chance.”
She wanted to tell him no, that she had given him a chance over a decade ago. And he ruined it. But she tried to go for light humor instead.
“Well, I don’t really go for the lawyer type. Too formal for me.”
Perry looked at her questioningly. “Drew isn’t a lawyer, Lilah. He left his father’s firm two years ago.”
“What? He couldn’t have. His father wouldn’t have let him.”
Perry chuckled. “Drew is thirty-two years old. It took him awhile but he finally grew a pair and stood up to his dad. Oh sorry,” he said embarrassed.
“If he doesn’t work for his dad, what does he do?”
“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Drew stood in the doorway, looking as yummy as ever.
Perry must have picked up on the tension between them, so he let out a little cough. “I think I’ll just go find the wife. I’m sure there are more pictures we could be taking.”
“You’re not a lawyer anymore?”
“No.” He closed the gap between them. “I hated every second of that life, Lilah. Every damn second of it. From the time I was a small child until I stood up to my father two years ago, I felt miserable.”
He took her face in his hands. “I was only happy that summer with you.” With that, he pulled her to him and kissed her.
She didn’t want to give in but her body had a different idea. Their lips melded together as if they had never been apart. His taste, his touch, it all felt familiar. It felt like home.
Her arms snuck up his body and wrapped around his neck as his framed her face. Tilting her head, she allowed him to deepen the kiss as their tongues found each other.
“I’ve missed you so much,” he said on a ragged breath when they broke apart.
“So what do you do now?” she smiled up at him.
“I’m a teacher.”
His hands slid up and down her back as they stayed close together. “I love it. I teach fourth grade. The kids are amazing and it’s so rewarding.”
She could see it. Lilah imagined him standing in front of a classroom talking about the Revolutionary War, fractions, the Bering Strait, or whatever they learned in fourth grade. Drew had always had patience in spades.
“That’s wonderful.” It’s wonderful to see that spark in his eyes. It had never been there when he used to complain about how he was required to go to law school.
“I started a nonprofit for kids as well. Buying them books and school supplies. It’s actually one of the reasons why Cecelia and I broke up. She said I shouldn’t waste my money on other people. It was the final straw.
“My life is good now, Lilah. I love what I’m doing. I’m out of my family’s shadow. Now, I just need you and everything will be perfect.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It was all too good to be true. But more than anything, she was happy for Drew. That he had found his way.
She kissed him, hungrily, greedily. And Drew reciprocated by pulling her to him. He tore his lips from hers to move down her neck and along her jaw. She moaned as he found the sensitive spot near her ear.
He had been the one to discover it all those years ago, she thought with a smile.
Then their hands were everywhere, tugging and pulling. He yanked the single strap of her evening gown down her arm, replacing it with his lips.
She began to tug his dress shirt out of the waistband of his pants. As her fingers grazed the skin just above his zipper, he gasped and lost his footing.
Lilah pushed him back against the wall, not caring. She tore his shirt open, buttons popping in every direction. She looked up to see a wicked grin on his face as he wove his hands through her hair and clamped down on her mouth, nipping and teasing before going in for a breathtaking kiss.
Then they were shaking and moving. It took a split second for her to realize they were actually falling. The wall she pushed him against wasn’t real. It had been set up to partition the tent area. And with their added weight it tumbled and the two of them spilled onto the stage of the reception tent.
Lilah heard the entire room gasp. She froze. Oh God. Oh God. Sparing a glance in Drew direction, she saw he sat just as still.
Complete and utter silence descended on the room. Lilah took the opportunity to pull the strap of her dress back up.
“Omigod,” Chrissy shouted in her shrill voice. “It’s our wedding planner.”
“And my son.”
Without looking up, Lilah knew the owner of that deep, disapproving voice. Andrew Hamilton, III, rose from his chair in the middle of the room and walked slowly toward them.
She felt Drew grab her arm and help her to her feet. Every set of eyes continued to stare, riveted on this little soap opera.
When Drew’s father got closer he kept his voice low. “What the hell are you doing, son?”
Drew stayed quiet and her heart dropped. Flashbacks of the country club flooded her mind. It was happening all over again. A roomful of rich people staring and laughing. She spotted her boss at the head table. Surely she would be fired again, just like when she was eighteen.
The original silence of the room had been replaced by excited whispers.
“Lilah,” Chrissy whined. “What are you doing making out with my husband’s cousin? You’re supposed to be preparing the bubbles I requested.”
She would like to be inside a bubble floating away at this very minute.
“Well, Drew?” Mr. Hamilton pressed. “What are you doing rolling around on the floor with the help?”
She couldn’t take it. Not again. She straightened her shoulders and started to walk away.
But Drew’s voice stopped her.
“This is Lilah Adler and I’ve been in love with her for the last eleven years.”
“Ahhh,” Chrissy screeched at the same time as the most of the women in the room sighed. Lilah would have joined them if she hadn’t been stunned speechless.
“Excuse me?” Drew’s father said.
Drew raised his voice. “I said that I love her. We met at our country club when we were in college. I fell in love with her then and I never stopped loving her.”
He turned to Lilah and took her hand in his. “You are the most loving, amazing, intelligent, wonderful woman I’ve ever met. And I didn’t treat you the way you deserved to be treated. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
“Forgive him, forgive him,” an older woman shouted from table thirteen.
“This, wedding planner, was it?” Mr. Hamilton looked disgusted. “You have no business being with my son. He’s a Hamilton.”
Drew turned to his father. “Dad,” he said with a quiet restrain. “Shut up.”
Taking Lilah by the shoulders he pressed his lips to hers.
She couldn’t stop the smile from spreading. “Thank you. I forgive you.”
Applause erupted as Drew’s arms came around her. She didn’t know where his father stormed off and she didn’t care. People were on their feet, the band started playing again and somehow she found herself being hugged by Chrissy.
Her happiness was put on pause as she saw Chrissy’s father, her boss, walking toward her.
“Mr. Pendleton, I’m so sorry.”
There was a brief moment when she thought she would surely be fired. But shocking her, a big smile spread across his face.
“Ah, not to worry, my dear.” He leaned closer and gave her a conspiratorial nudge. “I’m an old romantic. Just ask my wife. Or mistress. She calls me Swagger.”
He gave her an awkward hug. “See you in the office on Monday. Great job today, Lilah. I won’t forget it.”
She sensed Drew behind her before she turned around. “Hey you.”
“You have a funny look on your face,” he said.
“I think my boss just told me he has a mistress and that he is very romantic with her. Ew! And you!” She laughed tugging at his torn dress shirt. You’re a mess.”
He took her in his arms. “I was a mess. But everything’s just right now.”
With that, he kissed her and they began the new chapter of their lives together.