To Love and to Cherish
SO LET ME ASK this—how many layers in a wedding cake is excessive?”
If there was anything Alexis Morgan had learned in nearly a decade of wedding planning, it was that you never told a client that her vision was excessive. You simply guided her to that conclusion.
“How many layers are you thinking?” Alexis asked her client in a practiced neutral tone, defaulting to the answer-a-question-with-a-question technique that she’d found worked exceedingly well with indecisive brides.
Wow. Okay, yeah—that’s excessive.
“We can do twenty,” Alexis lied smoothly. “But keep in mind that the nine-course meal we’re planning will already include two dessert courses. We don’t want to minimize the specialness of those.”
Especially at five hundred bucks a head, just for the food.
Extravagant, even for a Wedding Belles client.
Nathalie Sorrel was an example of how far Alexis had come in the eight years since starting her company from this very same office.
Nathalie was an international supermodel and the very definition of the elite clientele Alexis had always dreamed of. Her latest modeling contract had been in the high six figures. Add in the fact that she was marrying Eric Hill, an NBA superstar whose contract was in the seven figures, and, well, if anybody could afford a twenty-layer wedding cake, it was these two.
Still, much as it was Alexis’s job to create dream weddings, it was also her brand to draw the line between tastefully extravagant and completely ostentatious.
“You don’t think I should do the big cake?” Nathalie said, pursing the pouty lips she was known for.
“I think it doesn’t fit the vision of the wedding you originally talked about,” Alexis said, skipping the fact that none of her bakery contacts would undertake something so ridiculous. “When I asked you to describe your dream wedding in three words, you told me lavish, unique, and intimate.”
“A big cake is lavish.”
“Yes, but it’s not intimate,” Alexis said. “Part of what makes your wedding so wonderfully special is the fact that you’re capping it at fifty people, even though hundreds would kill for an invitation. You’re creating something small and special. You want lavish, not gauche.”
It was just the right thing to say, as Alexis had known it would be. There was no dirtier picture to
paint for the Manhattan elite than the notion that something they did might be considered gauche. Knowing this was the Belles’ specialty, and Alexis’s own brand of genius, if she did say so herself.
Alexis had made a name for herself by knowing how to walk the fine line between opulent and gaudy.
After all, who better to know how to avoid gaudy than one who’d grown up swallowed in it?
“You’re right,” Nathalie was saying as she nodded enthusiastically, her azure-blue eyes widening as though a lightbulb had just gone off inside her head. “You’re so right. Eric and I have really been priding ourselves in restraint with this wedding, and I don’t want to jeopardize it with a cake.”
Alexis’s smile never slipped, but inwardly she maybe rolled her eyes, just a little. Any notion of restraint in this wedding had come from Alexis herself. But then that, too, was part of the job.
It’s not that she made the weddings her own. With every single contract, Alexis was committed to creating the exact experience the bride envisioned. It was just that sometimes they needed a little help implementing that vision and not getting sucked into bridezilla land.
They all thought they wanted a twenty-layer cake when really what they wanted was a small, elegant cake with dark chocolate truffle and Bavarian cream filling and a single pale pink ribbon around the base to match the sashes of the bridesmaids’ dresses.
And it was Alexis’s job to help them see that.
Five minutes later, a small chocolate cake was exactly the conclusion that Nathalie came to as they
finished up their meeting. The model rose from one of the ergonomic chairs in the conference room, stretching out her limbs-for-days as she pulled on the same Burberry trench coat she’d modeled in their latest catalog.
“Enjoy Milan,” Alexis said as she escorted Nathalie to the door of the Belles’ Upper West Side headquarters.
“Ugh, the only thing worse than a last-minute trip is a last-minute trip on a red-eye,” Nathalie said, checking her Cartier watch. “Thanks again for seeing me last minute. I really appreciate you squeezing me in after-hours like this.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Alexis said, refraining from saying that it’s not like she had other plans to get to.
Alexis liked to keep up the guise that she was a woman on the go for the benefit of her clients, who were firmly entrenched in the lifestyle of the high-flying glam and fab, but the truth was the Belles was her life. Her workday rarely started later than seven and never ended before eight, and Alexis liked it that way.
Alexis waved good-bye to Nathalie and closed the door, feeling the same sense of relief she always felt when she was done with client work for the day.
Working with people was a part of the job—obviously. But as a fierce introvert, Alexis’s favorite part of her day was always the recharging moments late in the evening when she’d sit at her little kitchen table in her apartment upstairs with a glass of wine and her planner.
“You know, I was just starting to think my diet was going well, but seeing Nathalie Sorrel makes me realize I have, like, such a long way to go.” This from Jessie, the Belles’ longtime receptionist and Alexis’s most recent right hand now that her previous assistant, Heather, had been promoted to full-time wedding planner.
Alexis gave Jessie a distracted smile. “Take it from someone older and wiser: comparing oneself to supermodels never ends well.”
Jessie punched a button on the phone, switching it over to voice mail. “You’re thirty-three. I’m twenty-six. Not that much older.”
Alexis rubbed at her forehead. It certainly felt that way.
“Plus,” Jessie was saying on a long-suffering sigh, “you wouldn’t get it. You’re a size two, and I officially just Ben and Jerried out of my size eight.”
“Ben and Jerry’s is a verb now?”
“It is when it has the power to make your hips explode.”
Alexis paused at the unusually glum note in her receptionist’s voice. Jessie was a bubbly extrovert whose personality was every bit as vibrant as her bright orange curly hair and sparkly green eyes.
“Everything okay?” Alexis asked, watching as Jessie pushed away from her desk and started to pack up the Tory Burch purse Alexis had bought her as a Christmas present.
Jessie glanced up. “Ugh, was my pity party coming out? Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. Want to talk?”
“No, it’s okay. I mean, yeah, but . . . okay, whatever—do you ever get tired of being single?”
Alexis didn’t so much as blink, and she certainly didn’t flinch. She was very sure of this. If Alexis had mastered anything over the years, it was hiding her feelings.
Especially feelings related to her nonexistent love life.
“I find I enjoy the solitude,” Alexis said slowly.
Jessie laughed. “Yeah, I forgot who I was talking to. I, on the other hand, like someone to listen to my constant chattering. It’s been three months since that prick dumped me to get back with his ex, and I haven’t had a single decent date. I thought maybe losing a few pounds would do the trick.”
“You already know what I’m going to say to that,” Alexis said with a little smile.
“That any guy who doesn’t like me with extra padding on my hips isn’t worth having?” Jessie said. “Yeah, yeah. Doesn’t mean I’m not stopping at the gym on the way home.”
“Just make sure you’re doing it because it makes you feel good, not because you just saw Nathalie Sorrel’s tiny butt wiggle out of here.”
“Yes, Boss,” Jessie said, saluting. “You need anything before I head out?”
“All good,” Alexis said. “Heather and Brooke gone for the day?”
“Yup. Brooke is at that new restaurant soft opening to see if their private event space is worth going on the list, and Heather . . . not sure, but I’m thinking she’s doing the newlywed thing?”
Jessie wiggled her eyebrows playfully, and Alexis forced a smile. It wasn’t that she wasn’t happy for Heather Fowler, now Heather Tanner. Heather was her longtime employee, formerly as assistant, now as a wedding planner in her own right, and a good friend. One of Alexis’s best friends, in fact, although strictly speaking, Alexis wasn’t really a BFF kind of gal.
Heather had found herself in a whirlwind romance with her sexy neighbor that had ended in a very spontaneous, and very romantic, wedding several weeks earlier.
Alexis was thrilled for Josh and Heather. Heck, she was also thrilled for her other wedding planner, Brooke, who’d recently gotten engaged to a ridiculously handsome hotel tycoon, Seth.
And if she was a tiny bit jealous, she didn’t think about that. Didn’t have time for it, really.
“Your groceries were delivered while you were meeting with Nathalie,” Jessie was saying as she pulled on her bright green jacket. “I put your eggs and stuff in the fridge.”
“Thanks, you’re great,” Alexis said distractedly as she picked up the pile of mail and began flipping through. Bills, bills, and more bills. She set them aside to be dealt with tomorrow when her longtime accountant, Logan Harris, came in for their twice-weekly appointments.
“I know,” Jessie said in a singsong voice, all trace of former glumness gone. “See you tomorrow, Boss.”
Alexis locked up behind Jessie, gathered her planner, iPad, and laptop, and headed to the stairs to climb to her third-floor apartment.
Despite the fact that all of her favorite girl-boss blogs had been on a kick about not working where you live and vice versa, throwing down a massive downpayment on her Upper West Side brownstone had been the best decision of Alexis’s life.
From the very beginning, she’d envisioned her home and office exactly as it was now: a classy reception and conference area to serve as a place for excited brides to discuss their dream weddings, a second-floor office space for her team to have room to spread out and work, and a third floor just for her to live.
Well, not just for her.
That was the one part of her life that hadn’t quite lived up to expectations; when Alexis had bought the property all those years ago, she’d had visions of being married by now. Maybe a baby. Or two. Finishing up her workday and bounding upstairs to relieve the nanny of her little bundle of joy, getting in a cuddle or two before bath and bedtime, and then relaxing with her husband over a nice glass of wine as they discussed their respective workdays.
Funny how some dreams came to be and some stayed just that. Dreams.
Alexis pushed the thought aside as she opened the door to her apartment. She smiled upon seeing that Jessie had arranged the white tulips Alexis had added to her grocery delivery in her favorite Anthropologie vase. She absently rearranged them to her liking before carrying the vase to the small sideboard. She lit a scented lavender candle and slowly exhaled the stress of the day.
Alexis loved her apartment. Loved the dark
hardwood floors, the crisp white cupboards of a newly renovated kitchen. Loved the way the big tree out front let just the right amount of filtered sunlight through on a Sunday morning, loved the way the muted gray of her living room walls kept it cozy on snowy winter nights and serene on spring evenings such as this one.
Alexis changed her color scheme every couple of years to keep the apartment from feeling stale, and most recently, she’d gone with grays and purples, which suited her mood lately.
Calm and just a little bit melancholy.
Not for the first time she wondered if maybe a cat wouldn’t be a good investment. She’d prefer a dog—a big, dopey golden retriever like the one she’d longed for as a kid, but she had neither the space nor the schedule for a dog.
A cat, though . . . a cat could do its business in a litter box, would probably prefer for her to be gone as often as it would for her to be present.
A cat would be someone to talk to at the end of a long day.
A day like this one.
Alexis went to the fridge, pulling out a bottle of the Grüner Veltliner she’d opened last night. She pulled down a crystal glass from the cupboard where all of her stemware sat neatly lined up, polishing the glass with a paper towel before pouring some of the crisp white.
Small pleasures, she reminded herself as she took a sip. Savor the small pleasures, and the empty parts won’t seem so bad.
Alexis’s cell phone rang just as she was opening her
laptop, and she picked it up, glancing at the screen and bracing for a frazzled bride or a panicking vendor.
Her glass froze halfway to her lips when she saw it was neither.
Her thumb hovered over decline. Oh, it was ever so tempting.
But like she always did, Alexis sighed and answered the call. “Hi, Mom.”
“Lexie. How are you, dear?”
Lexie. She’d always hated the nickname, but she’d learned at an early age to pick her battles when it came to Cecily Morgan.
Alexis took another sip of wine. “I’m doing well. How are you?”
She winced as she asked it, knowing it was the expected and appropriate thing to say and yet dreading her mother’s response all the same.
For Cecily Morgan, How are you? was never met with an okay and certainly never a good. Not since Alexis’s father had committed the ultimate of all clichés and left her mother for a much younger woman. And then—to add insult to injury—Alexis’s father had actually gone and married Tawny. Alexis suspected the fact that her father had at least seemed to find a second shot at true love rankled her mother more than if Tawny had just been a passing flavor-of-the-month, garden-variety sort of fling.
“Did I tell you that she came by the club the other day?” her mother was saying.
Another cliché: her mother’s refusal to say Tawny’s name. At least she’d moved on from that woman.
“Oh yeah?” Alexis asked, refusing, as she always did,
to play into the she-devil routine. She liked Tawny. Her stepmom could be a little crass, sure, but she had a good heart and liked to laugh. Tawny was fun. Alexis’s mom . . . not so much.
“Yes,” Cecily said in disgust. “Tossed back three chardonnays before four o’clock. I wouldn’t be surprised if your father’s driving her to drink.”
Sort of like you’re driving me to drink? Alexis deliberately put the glass of wine to the side.
“How are things otherwise?” she asked, trying to steer her mother to non–Jack Morgan–related topics.
“Oh, well,” her mother said, emphasizing the last word with a combination of weariness and impending gossip. “Have you talked to your sister lately?”
Alexis stiffened ever so slightly at the mention of Roxie. She was almost to the point where mention of her sister didn’t sting. Almost.
But not quite.
“I called her last month on her birthday,” Alexis said quietly.
“Well, I saw her just the other day, and . . .” Her mother’s voice had dropped to a whisper. “I think she’s expecting.”
Alexis’s world tilted, just for a moment, and then righted itself. “What?”
“Well, she wouldn’t eat a thing, even though we were at that little French bistro she loves. Just kept picking at the bread basket, and well, dear, you know how judicious I’ve always encouraged you girls to be about unnecessary carbs. And any time Adam tried to encourage her to eat something else, she looked positively ill, had to leave the table. I thought she was
going to be sick at the sight of my tuna tartar salad. Then I started thinking and I recalled that the other week, she didn’t have a single sip of that Chablis I opened. When have you ever known Roxie to turn down a good glass of wine?”
Alexis swallowed. Once. Twice. Nope, her mouth still felt dry. “Maybe she’s not feeling well.”
“Well, of course she’s not feeling well if she’s expecting a baby!” her mother snapped. “First trimester was the worst for me, especially with you.”
Alexis’s eyes closed. “But she hasn’t confirmed anything?”
“No,” Cecily said. “Which is why I’m calling.”
“I already told you I haven’t talked to her. I certainly don’t know if she’s pregnant.”
I don’t want to know if she’s pregnant.
“I think she’s keeping it quiet because of you,” her mother said, not pulling any punches. “She’s protecting you. Your feelings.”
Alexis wanted to argue. She wanted so badly to open her mouth and tell her mom that that was crazy, but the thing was . . .
It felt true.
If Roxanne were pregnant, she was no doubt in agony about Alexis finding out. Despite the fact that they’d had nearly a decade to work through the tension between them, Alexis couldn’t exactly claim that she had healed.
And Roxie knew it.
“What do you want me to do?” Alexis asked, reaching once more for her wineglass. Might as well. She wasn’t pregnant with Adam Hogan’s baby.
But she might have been. Had things gone very, very differently, she’d have been the one declining her mother’s wine, she’d have been the queasy one at the little French bistro, pulling off chunks of a baguette as her insides roiled against her because she was in the process of creating new life.
It hurt more than a little that her mom didn’t seem to understand this. Then again, she and her mother had never seen eye to eye. Cecily had always been barely tolerant of Alexis’s entrepreneurial tendencies, gently reminding her all through high school and college that nice boys liked nice girls, not smart ones.
Not an exact quote, but the sentiment had certainly been clear.
Turned out her mother had been right. Guys liked the girls who were sweet and giggly, not the ones who were ambitious and quiet. Or at least Adam did.
Pregnant or not, Alexis was suddenly starting to feel a little queasy herself.
“I think you should talk to her,” Cecily said. “Tell her it’s okay if she’s pregnant.”
Alexis’s eyes closed once more, and this time she squeezed them shut, tightly.
What if it wasn’t okay?
What if the fact that her sister was pregnant with the child of the man Alexis once loved would never be okay?