MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Weddings were a touchy subject for Charlotte Linley. Not that any of her photography clients would know that, since she prided herself on making her couples feel important on their wedding day. She encouraged them to live in the moment, to have fun, not to stress. Treated each couple’s day like it was the event of the year. Despite her own personal history, she knew a wedding day was supposed to be a happy occasion. And thankfully in her experience as a photographer, it always was. Today’s wedding was no exception.
Glancing around the bumpy trolley, Charlotte smiled to herself as the bridal party laughed and sang along to the music blaring through the speakers. They were having a great time, and she knew that was partly because she’d made their on-location portrait session fun and easy. Sure, at every wedding she worked, she couldn’t help but have a small underlying feeling of dread until the words I do. But she took comfort in the fact that today she was shooting her 234th wedding, and she’d yet to have a bride or groom bail. Not that it couldn’t still happen in the future, because if anyone knew that it was possible, it was Charlotte.
With a sigh, she steadied herself in the aisle of the trolley as it bounced over a dip in the road. Widening her stance for leverage, she wrapped her arm around a pole and then slowly lifted her camera to her eye. It was critical she make no sudden movements, since today’s bride was one of those women hyperaware of her photographer at any given time. Charlotte really preferred that her clients forget she existed until portrait time. Not because she was antisocial, but because she loved candid images. The moments like the one before her, the bride and groom cozied up in the back of the vehicle, cocooned in post-wedding-ceremony bliss. The groom leaned in and whispered something sweet—or naughty, who knew—and his bride giggled before tilting in to kiss him, her hand lightly cupping his jaw. They looked content and happy, their foreheads touching as they shared a few intimate seconds before arriving at their reception.
Experience had taught Charlotte that a few weeks from now, when this couple viewed their gallery of photos, they would have forgotten this playful kiss in the back of the trolley. When it popped up on their computer screen, they would smile and “ahh,” and maybe even tear up. They’d likely thank her for capturing these little moments that allowed them to relive a day that had zoomed by at lightning speed. That conversation, that feeling of satisfaction, kept Charlotte shooting weddings. And hey, if she contributed just the tiniest amount to a couple staying in love forever … well then, that sufficed.
She looked at the back of her camera, pleased with the image. Commotion from the rowdy bridal party pulled her attention, followed by her camera’s focus, back to the action. The bridesmaids were passing out Jell-O shots that had been stored in a cooler. Charlotte clicked a few shots of them laughing, throwing them back, and things began to happen in slow motion as one of the guys lifted his hand to give his buddy a fist bump, effectively knocking his neighbor’s arm in the process.
Charlotte grimaced as the bridesmaid screeched. “Dang it, Jason, you just made me drop some on my dress. How embarrassing.”
A fountain of peach satin fell upon her, fellow maids pulling out homemade wedding day emergency kits and trying to get the bright blue stain out of the lace overlay as if their lives depended on it. After catching some of the drama on her camera for posterity’s sake, because someday it would be funny, Charlotte turned around to look out the front window.
“Everything okay back there?” Frank, the trolley driver, asked Charlotte.
She met his eyes in his large rearview mirror and stepped down closer so he could hear her. “Neon-blue Jell-O shots. When will they learn?”
Frank chuckled with her. They’d worked together many times over the years. Same drama, different weekend.
“On to the Stag then?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yep, portraits are done. Thank goodness.”
The Stag Whiskey Distillery was her favorite venue. Just the thought of it made her grin. She liked this couple and the wedding had gone well, but all day she’d been excited to get to the reception. If Charlotte was a wedding kind of gal, she’d definitely book the Stag for her festivities. But since she’d been there done that, and it would never happen again, she made sure to recommend it to every bride she worked with.
Production of whiskey and vodka was their main gig and very lucrative, but three years ago when the business was still young, they’d started renting out the upstairs space for weddings and other events. Charlotte was one of the very first photographers to shoot there, and she’d loved watching it evolve in to what it was now: one of the most sought-after venues in the Kansas City metro area. What with their delicious spirits, awesome building, and killer branding, they were set. It was just the cherry on top that the three owners, TJ, Jake, and Dean, were all super hot. Charlotte liked to tease them that reality television would eventually knock on their door—something they all balked at.
Frank drove the trolley through the town square of Maple Springs, Kansas, a suburb of the Kansas City metro. Charlotte had lived in Maple Springs her entire life, but it wasn’t quite the same town she’d spent her childhood in. There were now two high schools, and instead of Mama’s Kitchen being the only option for a meal out, there were a handful of chain and independently owned restaurants. Something she had no complaints about.
The town square had been undergoing a revival over the past couple of years as well, which the community seemed to be excited about. As they headed for the Stag, Charlotte took in the mix of small shops that had opened up. Several of the bridesmaids behind her were also pointing out their favorites as the vehicle rolled through town.
She personally loved the Craft Shack, but also Nana’s Toy Box, Yellow Brick Coffee, and even Totally Nuts, a boutique nut-roasting shop run by a little old man named Pete Jenkins. Charlotte had gone to high school with his granddaughter, and she could recall that the man had been, well … one might say the name of his shop was very appropriate, but he sure could roast a perfect bag of pecans, almonds, or cashews.
Charlotte had many great memories in Maple Springs, and despite its population doubling in size over the past decade, it still felt like a small town. The Stag Whiskey Distillery in the old brick building on the corner of Hickory and Sterling Avenue only added to the town square’s charm.
Over the years, the building had housed everything from a furniture store to offices. It had even sat vacant for a time, but luckily the Stag guys had come along and snatched it up. To their credit, they’d made the space functional for their business but also managed to maintain its historical integrity. The upstairs venue space was simple yet elegant, perfect for weddings, and depending on how the bride chose to decorate, it could work with a variety of styles. Spacious yet intimate, its mix of industrial and antique gave a timeless look and feel. It also always looked gorgeous in photos. Brick walls weren’t normally conducive to good images as they tended to soak up all the light, but the beauty of the place—the giant chandeliers, stone fireplace, and wood beams—made up for that. Plus, Charlotte had shot there so many times she knew exactly what settings to use, and where to place her flash the minute she walked in.
As the trolley pulled to a stop at the front door, her stomach fluttered in anticipation. She glanced down and took inventory of her black slacks and cream-colored blouse. Thankfully she’d managed to get through the day without getting dirty, which wasn’t always the case. Pulling out her phone, she shot a quick one-word text to her assistant Lauren, alerting her that they’d arrived.
She glanced at the clock, pleased to see they’d timed things perfectly. After working together for almost seven years, she and Laruen were like a well-oiled machine. Once she’d received Charlotte’s text, Lauren would alert the DJ to their arrival; he should then be ready to announce the bridal party. From that point forward the reception would proceed as normal, because they were all so similar it was almost laughable. Charlotte could shoot a wedding in her sleep.
After tossing Frank a cheery wave over her shoulder, she was the first person off the trolley as the bridal party gathered their things.
Before stepping inside, Charlotte took a quick swipe at her lower lashes, hoping her makeup hadn’t melted too much during afternoon outdoor portraits. She fidgeted with her hair then opened the door and inhaled the now familiar scent of fermenting alcohol. Heading into the expansive first floor, she relished the chill on her arms from the air conditioner as the muffled bass thumped from the floor above.
The black-and-white octagonal floor on the first level of the Stag always drew her eye. It never ceased to impress her how the guys had struck a perfect balance of original and modern in this space. In addition to the original floor tiles, stainless-steel piping, copper trim, leather furniture, and wood beams created a masculine yet elegant feel. The main floor was devoted to the distillery side of their business. Once you entered, a large front desk—always vacant on the weekends—sat to the right, and there was a nice seating area in the center of the room. To the left was a hallway that led to offices and restrooms; to the right, a giant elevator and a hall to the large supply room and back staircase. The pièce de résistance of the room was the back wall. Floor-to-ceiling glass encased the distilling room, which housed their beautiful copper distiller.
Charlotte stepped around the front desk to find the one person she’d been hoping to see tonight. Stepping off the old freight elevator was her favorite of the three Stag owners.
Her heart rate cranked up instantly.
The minute their eyes met, he smiled and headed her direction. She took him in, hands casually tucked into the pockets of his khaki pants, gait sure and smooth. The man wore a dress shirt as if it were tailored to his firm chest, the top button open to reveal his neck and the sleeves rolled to show off his masculine arms. Charlotte particularly liked the bones in his wrists. Something she’d never noticed before on a man, but when it came to Dean, she seemed to miss nothing. His leather belt urged her eyes to wander over his narrow hips. All six sexy feet of him—from his cognac oxford shoes, to his lightly mussed dark hair—was a sight to behold. He was a bit older than her, but not even that seemed to matter. Dean was without a doubt the best part of shooting at this venue.
The first time she’d laid eyes on him she’d fallen a little bit in love. Not real love, of course. More of a deeply unhealthy infatuation. The kind that made you imagine what kind of house you might buy together, practice writing your name as Mrs. Charlotte Troyer, or consider what you’d name your first child. Run-of-the-mill female insanity. Charlotte had even been known to accidentally find him amid the crowd inside her camera lens during a wedding reception, and then zoom in on his face. There might even be a secret folder on her computer labeled Dream Man to contain those special images. She had a bit of a problem, and that problem was currently looking her up and down—an adorable smirk on his face—as she met him halfway.
“Always right on time to greet me,” she teased quietly. “I tell myself it’s because I’m your favorite photographer and you’re miserable until I get here.”
Dean chuckled, an embarrassed smile on his face, always the best part. A lot sexy and a little surprised, as if it always shocked him when she was forward. He looked directly at her. “You can continue to tell yourself that because it’s absolutely true,” he said, voice deep and low.
Charlotte warmed inside at his words, but before she could take the flirting any further, the bridal party entered the front door. Nothing if not professional, Dean changed the direction of the conversation with ease.
“How’s the day been going?”
“Good. Ceremony was perfect, portraits amazing. What more can we ask for?”
She turned to the girls, who appeared uncertain where to go as they shuffled into the main room. Charlotte called out. “Ladies, the restroom is that way if you want to freshen up before intro.”
The herd of peach made their way toward the indicated hallway down the left side. Charlotte turned back to Dean to find that he hadn’t taken his eyes off her.
“Do we like them?” he whispered after they were alone again. She loved when he referred to them as a we. Just like she did in her dreams.
“The couple is fantastic. Wedding party is crossing over into drunk territory, so yeah, they’re fun.”
“How late are you here?” Dean asked as some of the guys dragged in their cooler and various bags the girls had left behind. At least they weren’t too intoxicated to be gentleman.
“We’re here until midnight.”
His lips turned down a bit. “That’s a really long day for you.”
“You’re not kidding. They booked an unlimited day. Started at ten o’clock this morning.” Charlotte made a face. “Don’t ask me why I offer that option. I’m mad at myself every time someone chooses it.”
“Well, I guess I shouldn’t complain. I like you in my building. Means I get to stare at you longer.”
It was Charlotte’s turn to blush. Dean always flirted back with her, but his style was normally much subtler than hers, so when he said something bold, it sent tingles through her entire body. It didn’t hurt that his good looks were enough to melt the panties off any female in the vicinity. The proof came when some of the bridesmaids caught sight of him as they exited the restroom. Their eyes went wide with shock and admiration, and these girls were young. More evidence that his age did not factor when it came to his sex appeal. In fact, she believed it worked in his favor.
It wasn’t that he looked that much older. His hair wasn’t gray … except for the tiniest pieces at his temples. And his face wasn’t wrinkled … well, except for the slight lines that appeared at his eyes when he smiled. Although she knew he was older than Jake and TJ, she’d never gotten up the courage to ask anyone his exact age. She really didn’t care. It almost made it a little hotter, this air of maturity about him. Not in a stuffy way, more just … powerful. Knowing. Stoic, maybe. When she compared him with guys her own age, he was just … more.
“Oh my God.” One of the tipsy bridesmaids made her way across the room toward the elevator where Charlotte and Dean stood. The bride and the rest of her attendants followed. “Are you one of the owner guys?”
“I am one of owner guys. Welcome to the Stag.” He gave a warm smile to the young woman and other ladies who had circled around. When Sonya, the bride, walked over, Dean politely held out his hand and congratulated her on her nuptials.
Charlotte watched him laugh with the group of women, so confident and handsome, but always professional. He was playful, if a bit reserved, so Charlotte always made it her mission to make him laugh. She loved nothing more than when they found themselves alone so she could flirt with him unabashedly. Teasing him was one of her favorite things, because his smile was so handsome. Dean was just flat-out beautiful, like a movie star. Not the ones that played the young heartthrob, yet definitely not the men playing the fatherly roles. He was more along the lines of sexy middle-aged leading man. The inexorable bachelor, the man that women of every age lusted after and hoped to bring to heel.
On top of that, Dean was just a really good guy. Always kind and thoughtful, and he clearly worked hard. Time and again Charlotte had witnessed him do the sweetest things, like help old ladies and talk to children. Once he’d even spent an hour serving food for a short-staffed caterer. Dean was the ultimate catch, and she liked to daydream that he was all hers.
“I can see why you booked this place,” one of bridesmaids said with an eyebrow waggle toward Dean. The girls all laughed and the bride blushed, apologizing to him.
“No worries, Sonya,” Charlotte interjected. “Dean’s used to having all the ladies’ attention.”
Dean gave her a playful scowl. “Hardly. The other guys, yes. I try to just blend in.”
From the dreamy looks on the girls’ faces, he was failing miserably. This wasn’t the first time Charlotte had seen women flirt with the Stag guys. In fact, it pretty much happened every time she shot a wedding there. They seemed to take the flirting in stride. Dean was good at politely diverting the attention, TJ always appeared adorably flustered, and Jake usually seemed torn between doing the right thing and dragging the perpetrator into a dark corner and having his way with her. He was the wild one of the group, hands down.
Realizing they were killing precious time, Charlotte called the guys over from where they’d congregated on the sofas and rounded up her troops.
She quickly explained that Dean would take them up the freight elevator and then they’d do the intro straightaway. As everyone began to make their way onto the lift, Dean leaned over and whispered into Charlotte’s ear, “That blond guy given you any trouble today?”
Ah, so he’d noticed the way the best man stood in her personal space and didn’t stop staring at her. It happened sometimes. She’d earn an admirer over the course of the day, and by this hour, with alcohol flowing, it could occasionally get a little weird.
“Nothing I can’t handle, but I love that you’re jealous,” she teased.
He gave her a look she couldn’t quite decipher. “I’m definitely jealous. Only I get to flirt with the photographer during a Stag reception.”
“Don’t worry. I’m all yours.” She gave him a quick wink.
Knowing Dean would get the group upstairs in two trips, Charlotte headed up the back stairs to prep and find Lauren. She was greeted by the sound of a party in full swing. Thumping jazz music, the tinkling of glass, the murmur of conversation, and the occasional hearty laugh. From the makeshift kitchen room came the tantalizing scent of garlic, and Charlotte’s stomach growled as she passed a server with a tray of stuffed mushrooms. How she would have loved to nab one or five.
She spotted Lauren taking group shots of the revelers as they eagerly awaited the bride and groom. Charlotte made her way in that direction.
“How’d it go?” Lauren asked when they were within speaking distance.
“Portraits went well. That park you suggested worked out perfectly. I hated the thought of going to that field again.”
“I’m glad it worked.” Lauren nodded to the long bar. “I’ve got a glass of water for you hidden behind that flower arrangement.”
Charlotte realized then how thirsty she truly was. “You’re amazing.”
Heading over to the bar, Charlotte gave a quick wave to the bartender Jen, downed her glass of water, and began to prep for the bridal party’s introduction. Twenty minutes later they’d shot the intro and the servers began setting down dinner plates. The cue for Charlotte and Lauren to take a well-earned break.
Another great thing about shooting at the Stag was the little room off to the side of the bar. Basically, only the vendors or an occasional nursing mother went in there. With seating, a table, and a bathroom, it made for a nice little retreat to eat dinner and store gear. It was also close enough to the action that they could be alerted quickly if anything exciting happened.
“My favorite part of the day,” Lauren said as she plopped onto the nearest couch. “Dinnertime.”
“Absolutely,” Charlotte said, gently laying her massive camera down on the table. She removed the second camera from around her neck, removed her heavy bag of equipment, and instantly felt the relief of being twenty pounds lighter. She sat on the opposite couch. “It’s been a pretty easy day, though. Considering how early we started.”
They both sighed as they leaned back in unison. It was always nice to just sit for a moment and reflect on the day. At their dinner break, Charlotte could take a deep breath and relax, knowing that all of the critical moments were over with. The getting ready, ceremony, kiss, and portraits were all done and behind her. The rest was cake. Literally, because she and Lauren always sampled the cake. Speaking of which …
“Who made the cake?” she asked Lauren.
“Jill Fontaine,” a masculine voice said from the doorway. Her body instantly went on alert as she turned to find Dean holding a stainless domed plate in each large hand.
Lauren sat up. “That just made my whole night. Jill’s cakes are like little fluffy orgasms with frosting on top.”
Dean laughed and laid the dishes down on the table. “I think what I have here looks pretty orgasmic also.”
Charlotte smiled as she thought of all the ways she could reply to that adorable comment, but she refrained. Instead she sat up, excited to see what was for dinner.
Dean pulled off the lids, revealing breaded chicken breasts coated in a cream sauce, whipped cheesy potatoes, green beans with bacon, and a giant roll.
Charlotte couldn’t hold in her gasp of pleasure. “This looks amazing. Thank goodness wedding day calories don’t count.”
“Absolutely,” Lauren replied as she stood up. “I’m going to run to the restroom and then grab a soda.”
“Grab me one?” Charlotte called after her. Lauren nodded and headed for the door.
Dean waited until Lauren was gone and then sat down beside Charlotte. Not too close, but enough that she felt his warmth immediately.
“I was surprised when I saw the dinner,” Dean said as Charlotte picked up a forkful of mashed potatoes and brought them to her lips. “I wasn’t sure about a caterer with a name like Gary’s Catering.”
After swallowing the creamy bite of heaven, she replied. “Not the most original name, right? But Gary’s is one of my favorites. He’s consistent and he seasons well. So many of them are afraid of a little salt and pepper.” Charlotte loaded up her fork again. “And he’s a nice guy, which makes a difference.”
“So he’s reasonable?” Dean asked.
Charlotte shoved a second bite of potatoes into her mouth, starved after shooting for almost eight hours. All she’d had was a granola bar before the ceremony. She nearly groaned. “Sorry, what did you say?”
Dean’s smile—and his eyes on her mouth—made her aware of how she was chowing down. She was so hungry she couldn’t find it in her to care. He leaned forward, elbow on his knees, still watching her. “I asked about Gary’s. He’s reasonably priced as far as caterers go?”
She swallowed and considered his question before answering. “Yeah. I’d say he’s the best in his price range, which is right in the middle. After that I’d go with Gourmet Granny. She makes the best chicken Kiev and spaetzle.”
Dean nodded. “Good to know. Are Jill’s cakes expensive?”
“Very. But totally worth it. Problem with Jill is that popular dates are sometimes spoken for years in advance. I think women have been known to book her before they have a ring. She’s in really high demand.”
Charlotte cut a bite of her chicken. Part of her just wanted to sit here and enjoy Dean’s company, but on the other hand she was ravenously hungry and they had to get their dinner eaten while the bride and groom ate—which usually didn’t take long. A sudden thought came to mind, and she quickly glanced over at Dean.
“You getting married or something?”
She wished the thought weren’t so devastating. Charlotte was kind of surprised he wasn’t already taken, but she’d looked for a ring the first time she’d ever met him and hadn’t found one. Flirting had ensued.
“Oh no. Not me. My little sister just got engaged. I told her I’d start getting some information together for when she comes home on leave in July.”
Relief flooded through Charlotte’s chest just as Lauren walked back in and sat down to her own dinner. “Oh, congratulations! I had no idea you had a sister. She’s in the military?”
“Thank you, and yes, army. Tried to talk her out of it … but she’s pretty tough. I’m really proud of her.” His smile was warm as he spoke of his little sister, which only made Charlotte like him more.
“Of course you are. So she comes back in July? When’s her wedding?”
“They’re talking next summer, but I’m really not certain.”
Just then the door flung open and the DJ poked his head in. “Hey you two, thought you might want to know that the bride’s brother is giving an unannounced speech.”
“Damn,” Charlotte muttered, and Lauren groaned before shoving one last bite of chicken into her mouth.
“Lauren, you stay. I’ll go get this.” She turned to Dean and stood up. “No rest for the weary.”
He just shook his head. “You girls amaze me every time.”
“Hey, good luck with the wedding, and if your sister needs a photographer, I might know of a really good one.” She grinned, grabbed one of her cameras, and was out the door.
Copyright © 2017 by Nicole McLaughlin.