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EDITOR'S NOTE:
Denise Little

INTERVIEW:
Deb Stover

STORIES:
Deb Stover: Skin Deep
M.L. Buchman:
The Five Choices
Mary Jo Putney: Shining On
Dayle A. Dermatis:
Leave a Candle Burning
Gail Selinger:
With Admiration
Petronella Glover: The Space Between Us

SERIALIZATION:
Laura Resnick: Galatea: A Modern Myth
(Part 2)

RECOMMENDED BOOKS:
C.S. DeAvilla

COMING SOON:
Denise Little

WRITER'S CORNER:
Denise Little:
From Idea to "Keeper"
Julie Pitzel: What Writing Memes to you

ARTICLE:
Lezli Robyn: The Bridge Between Hearts

Neesa Hart got her start in the writing business working on political advertising. But she quickly felt the lure of happy endings. This multi-award winning author has written everything from political thrillers to church spectaculars, but the thing she loves best is a pure old-fashioned love story.

THE WEDDING BELLES

by Neesa Hart

 

Frost, Virginia was in the middle of a storm. A weak winter sun strained through the windows giving a false impression of warmth. Outside, temperatures were typical Frost in February: dry, cold, and hinting at snow. A small-town kind of place where there are no strangers and no such thing as a private family affair, Frost, wedged into the mountains between Roanoke and the Tennessee state line, was woefully unprepared for the surge of attention that came in the wake of Carmelita Navarro’s wedding.

The A-list actress’s announcement two months ago that she would be celebrating her nuptials in Frost at her fiancé’s family vineyard, had sparked an influx of media, event professionals, and enterprising entrepreneurs hoping to benefit from the growing list of attendees, now rumored to top 900 guests. With the wedding just three short weeks away, the town was groaning under the pressure of over-crowded hotels, restaurants and roads, while the ever-present threat of late winter snow made even the most die-hard romantic question the actress’s wisdom in selecting the quaint, but tiny, vineyard. Though the apparently fairy-tale nature of her brief courtship with local vintner Joshua Hardison, whom she met when her private plane made an emergency landing on his vineyard, was touted as a real-life chick-flick, the practicality of cramming her opulent wedding plans into the town of Frost had brought out the curmudgeon in nearly everyone.

The sole exception was Cadence Willow, who watched over an apparent sea of tranquility in the middle of downtown where her wedding planning business, The Wedding Belle, operated from a civil-war era blanket factory she’d converted into the Roanoke Valley’s largest bridal consultancy. At 32, Cadence Willow had already been named one of the Roanoke Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs before Carmelita sought her wedding planning expertise for what was going to be Frost’s event of the century. Cadence had loved the rich history of the area where she’d grown up too much to move to a larger city where everyone had told her there would be greater opportunities. Her family had lived in Frost for three generations. Here, her father taught music at the high school. Her mother had directed the church handbell choir. Her aunt was a librarian at the University just over the mountain. She cherished every bit of the history and story of the place, and had chosen to build her business in its struggling downtown district. Now, in the once abandoned factory, the light streamed in through the giant antique windows that fronted Main Street and gleamed on the polished surface of the 200 year old cutting table that now served as the reception’s desk. Cadence, who had determined early-on that Carmelita Navarro’s wedding would not get the best of her, emerged from her office in the one-time factory sample room to find Molly, her assistant, manning the phone, which now seemed to ring non-stop. “The Wedding Belle, this is Molly, how may I help you?”

Cadence looked at Molly and mouthed, “Where’s Meg?” referring to the 20-year-old receptionist who had been heroically fielding the ever-growing influx of phone calls since Carmelita had tapped The Wedding Belle as her event planner.

Molly twirled a curl of unnaturally red hair on a finger as she listened intently to the caller. “No, sir. No, I’m not going to tell you who the designer is. No, that’s the bride’s decision to release that information. No, I do not believe your factory supplies the bridal satin for the eastern seaboard and you’re worried about a shortage.” She paused to roll her eyes at Cadence. “No, sir, you cannot come by this afternoon and look at our collection of dresses. All of our appointments are booked.”

Cadence leaned her elbows on the counter and watched as Molly grew visibly more agitated by the insistent phone call. “Look,” Molly told him, “You’re a reporter and you’re trying to sniff out information on Carmelita’s wedding dress. So why don’t you just say that so I can tell you Hell’s going to freeze before we give you that information and we can both move on with our day? Yeah. Whatever. Bye.” She hung up the phone with an unladylike curse that was slightly muffled by the sound of the bells on the front door as Meg hurried into the airy front room.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Cadence.” Meg said as she rushed toward the reception desk.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” Molly said, vacating the seat at Meg’s desk. “I’m not cut out for this.”

Meg reached for the already ringing phone as she unwound her scarf. “The Wedding Belle, this is Meg, will you hold please,” she repeated four times as she managed to shuck her coat into Molly’s waiting arms while donning the headset that assimilated her into the chaos of The Wedding Belle’s torrent of phone calls. She glanced at Cadence as she logged into the control computer. “News trucks were three deep in front of my apartment this morning because Carmelita’s nephew has reportedly leased the top floor of the building for the rest of the month. I couldn’t get my car out.” She routed two more phone calls. “I’m so sorry,” she continued. “I tried to call.”

“Yeah,” Molly said, “but I was handling the phones. I probably cut you off.”

“Twice,” Meg confirmed. “I ended up walking two blocks and flagging down Nate Bowers for a ride.” She hit a button on her headset without breaking eye contact with Cadence. “The Wedding Belle, this is Meg. How may I help you. Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. That would be alterations. I will connect you.” Sorry she mouthed to Cadence.

Cadence shook her head with a rueful smile. No worries.

Molly gave the phones a disdainful look. “We should build her an apartment so she can move in here.”

Cadence laughed. “I am sure Meg doesn’t want to live here just because you’re afraid of the phones.”

“It’s not the phones that bother me. It’s the idiot reporters who won’t let us do our business.”

They started back toward Cadence’s office, past the two large display cases of English handbells that lined the wall behind the receptionist’s desk as Meg effortlessly brought the phones under control. “Well,” Cadence said, checking her ever-present clipboard, “I have a box full of chair cover samples we’ve got to go through.” Her friends had often said that her clipboard was an old fashioned link to sanity. While everyone on the planet had switched to smartphones and iPads, Cadence preferred the simplicity of her clipboard. “No one local has enough of any single style,” she continued, “and Carmelita insists we have to source it within 200 miles of here, so we’re going to have to mix and match and make it look planned.”

“She does know there are suppliers out of LA and New York that have access to UPS, right? And that we can get overnight delivery even here—in what she calls, ‘true America.’”

Cadence laughed. “Apparently, Joshua Hardison is all about bolstering small businesses in his community, and his fiancé is on board with that.”

“I mean, I understand, and don’t get me wrong, but this is sort of like the Olympics. Frost can’t really afford to build itself around this wedding that’s going to blow through here like a blizzard and be gone in a month. I don’t think we’re fixing to become the wedding Mecca of the Mid Atlantic.”

“That’s why Elegant Event Solutions doesn’t need to manufacture a thousand peau de soie chair covers in ‘morning mist.’ Although Joanne offered. I told her we would make what she has—and what the other 3 suppliers have—work with Carmelita’s color scheme.”

“At least it’s not something weird like leopard and lime green,” Molly said. “We have a fighting chance with light blue and copper.”

The bells on the door tinkled again. Cadence glanced up from her clipboard to find a man clad in jeans and a flannel shirt—not their usual clientele. He had dark wavy hair that looked effortless and refined at the same time. She tried not to resent him for that. In her wildest imagination, her super thick, super coarse, super unmanageable hair would somehow manage to look refined. Or even controlled. She fought the urge to fiddle with it.

Meg greeted the stranger with a poised smile that belied the rapidly blinking lights on her phone system indicating an endless queue of callers, “One moment, please, sir. I’ll be right with you.”

“Lies,” Molly muttered. “She’s going to be on that phone ’til lunch.”

Cadence eased forward to greet the newcomer. She knew who he was. Everyone in town knew who he was. Travis Brock was Joshua Hardison’s best man. A friend from college and a self-made businessman from nearby Buchanan, Travis’s picture had been all over the papers. In the morning light, she admitted, the pictures hadn’t done him justice. He was taller than she’d expected, with a sure self-confidence that made him perfectly at home in his flannel and denim among the satin, lace and ruffles of the bridal business. As she extended her hand, a girl she judged to be about seven years old emerged from behind him. “Daddy, she has bells,” she announced as she hurried toward the display cases, a look of joy on her bright face, “I love your bells,” she told Cadence.

“Tyler-Belle,” the man said, “hold on.”

“I just want to look, Daddy. I’m not gonna touch ’em.” She skidded to a stop next to Molly and pointed to the cases. “Those are handbells.”

“Yes,” Molly said. “They are.”

“Sorry,” The man moved toward his daughter. Cadence couldn’t help but take note of the way his clothes hugged his broad shoulders and lean hips and how he, somehow, made the casual look as elegant as any custom tailored tuxedo she’d ever seen. She was suddenly very aware of the horizontal wrinkles across her skirt from her commute in that morning, and had to suppress an urge to straighten her sweater. He put a hand on Tyler-Belle’s shoulder. “She really likes bells.”

Tyler-Belle turned from the case to smile at Cadence. “My mother played handbells,” she said. “Like these.”

“Mine, too,” Cadence assured.

“Really?”

“Really.” Tyler Belle turned her attention back to the case. “B4 is my favorite,” she told Molly, pointing to the bell with the designation on the handle. “Know why?”

Molly played along. “Why?”

“Because it comes be-fore C5.” She laughed at the joke, a bright, infectious laugh that said there was a lot of joy in her life. Something else to like about Travis Brock, Cadence thought.

Cadence looked at Travis who was watching his daughter with a tender expression and eyes filled with grief-laden memories that starkly contrasted with Tyler-Belle’s lilting voice. “Know which one is the exploding bell?” Tyler-Belle pressed Molly.

“C4,” Molly responded, having heard every handbell joke on the planet.

“C4! You’re right.” Tyler-Belle gave Molly an approving look as if she’d just announced she’d won the Nobel Prize.

“I’m Cadence Willow.” Cadence said to Travis as she joined the trio by the case. “Is there something we can help you with?”

He pulled himself from his reverie and shutters quickly feel in place over his blue eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m Travis Brock. You’ve met my daughter, Tyler-Belle.”

“In the best possible way,” Cadence assured him. She shot Tyler-Belle a smile. “I like anyone who is a fan of bells.”

“I have a whole collection,” Tyler-Belle assured her. “But not handbells. They’re too expensive.”

“We’re here for a fitting,” Travis explained.

Cadence nodded. “We’ve been expecting you and Tyler-Belle. Thank you for working us in.”

Meg looked up from her phones. “Do you want me to call Hilda?”

Hilda Mattheson, the dauntless head of alterations, typically handled everything related to the sometimes highly emotional topic of fittings. Brides could be a touchy lot, especially when it came to the way a dress fit and the way that fit addressed any latent body issues. “No,” Cadence assured her. “I’ll walk them down.”

She looked at Travis again. “How are you holding up?” She asked him with a wry smile. Just as everyone knew Travis was Joshua’s best man, everyone also knew he was likely overwhelmed with the responsibility of pulling off a high profile wedding, meeting Joshua’s demands of a certain level of privacy and dignity, and juggling the media attention with his cabinet-making business 40 miles down the road. His daughter, Tyler-Belle, was Carmelita’s flower girl, and while Tyler-Belle seemed undaunted by the sudden firestorm of fame and activity, Travis seemed as dazed as the rest of the Roanoke Valley.

“I’ve been better,” he confessed, wiping an elegant hand through his dark hair salted with the faintest traces of silver.

Cadence would lay odds at least a few of those distinguished strands had emerged since Joshua Hardison had roped him into his wedding circus. “Josh was best man at my wedding. Emily and I got married in my father’s barn and there were thirty guests. All he had to do was a plan a bachelor party with our three groomsmen and make sure I showed up on time.”

“Quite the contrast,” Cadence said, having read that Travis’ negotiations with the historic Hotel Roanoke as a site for the bachelor party had ground to a halt last week over an issue with the third-party caterer Carmelita had insisted on using. She’d found a caterer in downtown Frost who was well-liked by the community and who had catered the last two Hardison weddings. The hotel wanted to use their in-house caterer and doubted, as did most of Frost, Vivian Destry’s ability to adequately cater a party that size. Cadence had called to assure the hotel that Vivian would make it happen, and Carmelita had agreed to pay the hotel’s catering fee in addition to Vivian’s as long as they allowed Vivian to provide the food. Cadence hadn’t heard how and if the dispute had been settled.

He shook his head. “Yeah. Josh’s bachelor party has a guest list of 350 so far.”

Tyler-Belle turned her attention from the bells and slipped her hand into her father’s. “I told him to have it at the Pizza Shack and serve cupcakes. Everyone loves pizza.”

“And everyone loves cupcakes,” Molly agreed. “I don’t see what the problem is.”

“That idea is looking better all the time,” he said. “I’m a cabinetmaker and I run a business. I don’t argue with banquet captains. Hell, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a banquet captain.”

Cadence felt a sharp pang of sympathy. Just as everyone knew why Joshua had picked Travis as his best man, everyone also knew, thanks to entertainment news, that Travis’ wife, Emily, had tragically died two years ago when someone had broken into the small art store she ran in the downtown area and killed her during the robbery. The single father with the adorable daughter, the chiseled face, the sad eyes, and the thick wavy hair had been dubbed the wedding’s most eligible bachelor. But he was also dealing with all his best-man responsibilities without the assistance or influence of his wife, and from the looks of it, it was taking a toll.

She glanced at Molly, and they shared a moment of resolve and unspoken consent.

Molly took the plunge. “If it’s any help at all, Mr. Brock, we’d be glad to assist you with the event planning.”

He had the look of a man catching a life-preserver. “You would?”

“Sure,” Molly told him. “Nobody knows what’s going on with this wedding better than we do. It’s not that big of a deal to add one more event to our plate.”

Cadence caught Meg’s horrified look from across the room. She gave Travis a confident smile. “If you let Molly know where you are in the process, we’ll see what we can do.”

He rubbed at the muscles on the back of his neck. “I’m sure you’ll need to be compensated….”

Cadence held up a hand. “We’ll just consider it part of Carmelita’s fee. No problem.”

He visibly exhaled. “I might actually be able to fill a couple of orders this week if I don’t have to deal with this. I was supposed to attend a tasting this afternoon at the hotel so they could try to persuade me again about the catering.”

Molly laughed. “I’ve been to plenty of tastings at the hotel. Their food is really good, but it’s not like Vivian’s. When she has a tasting, it’s more like lunch at your grandmother’s.”

“That’s what Josh wants. Something rustic.”

“Then Vivian’s your girl,” Molly assured him. “She’ll serve pulled pork and they’ll roll out the Oysters Rockefeller. Don’t worry. We’ll handle it.”

Cadence tucked her clipboard under her arm. “Molly, can you—”

“On it. I’m going to call Roman right now,” she said, referring to the catering manager at the hotel. “I can assure you, he’ll see things our way.” She looked at Tyler-Belle. “Nice meeting you, Tyler-Belle.” Then at Travis, “Mr. Brock.”

“I can’t thank you enough.”

“Our pleasure,” Molly said and hurried off toward her office.

Cadence turned back to Travis. “I love a productive day of problem solving. Let’s get this dress-fitting done.” She held out a hand to Tyler-Belle. “I’m Cadence. Would you like to come with me and see what your dress looks like?”

***

Tyler-Belle was thrilled with the ruffled perfection of her pale blue dress with its fluted skirt and copper-colored sash. “Look, Daddy,” she said, spinning despite Hilda’s efforts to pin the shoulder. “It spins.”

“The most important thing about any dress,” Cadence assured Travis. “Spin factor.”

He gave her a slight smile. “Thank you.” He watched Hilda finally manage to still Tyler-Belle long enough to slide a pin into a drooping shoulder ruffle. “I really wish her mother was here for this.”

“She’d be very proud of her,” Cadence said. “And you. She’s really delightful. I’m sure it’s not easy.”

He watched Tyler-Belle with that same tender expression Cadence had seen earlier. “She looks more like her mom every day. Sometimes—” A ringtone interrupted the thought. “Excuse me,” he said, pulling the phone from his shirt pocket. He grimaced when he looked at the screen. “It’s the groom.”

Cadence nodded. “Let him know not to worry about the flower girl’s dress. It’s perfect.”

“Sure.” He slid his finger across the screen. Even his hands had that same elegance she’d noticed about him earlier, as if he owned the space he was in and defied it to challenge him. “Hello, Josh.” He paused and listened intently. “I’m at the dress place. With Tyler-Belle. Her flower girl dress. Yeah. Cadence says not to worry about it. The dress fits fine.” He tucked the receiver against his shoulder and looked at Cadence. “He wasn’t really worried about it.”

Cadence laughed. “Good to know he has so much confidence in us since we’re doing all the dresses for the wedding party.”

“No, I mean…” he caught the joke, then, and gave her a look of reproof before going back to the phone. “I don’t know,” he told Josh Harding. “Why would she want to do that? Charming. Yes, I’m sure it’ll be charming. Yes, I know what handbells are—Emily—look, Josh, I don’t know….” His expression darkened as a storm drifted across his thoughts. “Yes, I’m sure Tyler-Belle would enjoy it.”

“Enjoy what, Daddy?”

“No,” Travis continued talking to his friend. “No, that’s not the point.”

“What would I enjoy, Daddy?” She asked again before turning to look at herself in the mirrors. “Because this dress is amazing.”

That made Cadence laugh and Travis roll his eyes. His fingers were gripping the phone so tightly, his knuckles had turned white. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible,” he was telling Josh. “Because Tyler-Belle shouldn’t be out late and you said there weren’t any tickets anyway. What do you mean you don’t know about the tickets? Yes, I understand she really wants to go. Josh—I’ve already got the bachelor’s—I know. Yes, I know—OK. OK, I’ll see. Yes, I’ll see. OK. Bye.” He hung up the phone and his eyes drifted shut with a sigh of exasperation. “Great,” he muttered. “Just great.”

Cadence winced. “Is there something we can help with?

“I doubt it. It seems the bride-to-be was out with her entourage today and saw these posters for a handbell concert at the municipal auditorium in Buchanan. She wants to go with Josh. Thinks it’ll be a great taste of local flavor. And she wants me and Tyler-Belle to go with them because I told her Emily liked handbells. Apparently, Carmelita is a fan.”

Tyler-Belle’s face lit. “Really? Can we? Can we please? I haven’t heard handbells since…” she trailed off. Her face distorted slightly as she fought tears. “Well, I haven’t. Please, Daddy? Can we go?”

“Her mother played bells,” he explained to Cadence. “It’s why she loves them.”

“I know the feeling. My mother was the handbell director at the Presbyterian Church here in town until she died a few years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Nothing makes it easy.”

“Grief doesn’t go away,” she assured him. “It just changes. Those are her bells upstairs. We use them for wedding performances. In fact, Carmelita has a quartet from Oslo performing at her wedding.”

He blinked. “Oslo? Norway?”

“Minnesota. Someone she knows because she shot a movie near there and heard them play. Apparently, Carmelita is a fan of handbells and finds performances whenever she has a break in her filming schedule.”

“There’s an Oslo, Minnesota?”

“On the Red River near the state line. Population 400.”

“Four hundred? How are they big enough to have a handbell quartet?”

“They are from the Lutheran Church there. We’re flying them in on a private plane.”

Tyler-Belle had joined them. Hilda had finished pinning the dress and she was wearing her jeans and sweatshirt again. She slid her hand into Travis’. “Please, Daddy. Carmelita’s so nice and it’ll be so much fun.”

He looked at her pleading face. “I don’t think so, honey. Your uncle Josh says there aren’t any tickets.”

Cadence looked at Tyler-Belle and felt the tug of connection in her heart. Though she’d been a grown-up when her mother died after a battle with pancreatic cancer, she remembered the quiet longing she sometimes felt to hear the sound of her mother’s bells drifting upstairs as her mother practiced for a solo performance. Like Travis and Tyler-Belle, she hadn’t been to a handbell concert since her mother died. The unusual, but beautiful, instrument her mother had played for fifty-some years would always remind Cadence of the joy she saw on her mother’s face as she played. She drew a slow breath. “Is it the Roanoke Ringers’ concert she’s talking about?”

Travis looked at her in surprise. “You know about it?”

“The world of handbells is small. And this is a small town to boot. Pretty much, everyone knows everything about everybody.”

“True enough,” he admitted.

“So, I’m pretty sure that’s the one. And if it is, you may not thank me for this, but I have tickets.”

“Really?” Tyler-Belle asked, delighted.

“Really?” Travis echoed, no so delighted.

“My aunt plays in that group. My mother used to. They’re quite good. It should be a good concert. My aunt sends me tickets for every concert and I haven’t been able to go to one. I always seem to be too busy.”

“It’s tonight,” Travis said. “I mean, with the wedding….”

“I’m not actually too busy to go,” she confessed. “I just—I haven’t been since Mom—” she trailed off, not sure why she’d suddenly felt comfortable admitting that to this near stranger.

His face registered understanding. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Deep breath. “So, I have tickets. Six tickets actually, if you’d all like to be my guests.”

“Daddy, please! I promise I’ll go to bed the second we get home. The second. I’ll even fall asleep in the car if you want. And I won’t complain at all tomorrow morning about having to go to school. Not one word.”

He looked torn, and Cadence sensed his hesitation. “I understand if you can’t,” she assured him, “but you can still have the tickets for Josh and Carmelita. I’m sure she has friends who would like to go.” Even as she said it, it sounded a bit absurd. Carmelita Navarro’s friends were Hollywood A-listers. Cadence had a tough time picturing them at a handbell concert.

Tyler-Belle pulled on his hand. “Please.”

Cadence practically saw his resistance crumble in the face of his daughter’s pleasure at the thought of the concert. Another thing, she thought, that made Travis Brock the wedding of the century’s most eligible bachelor. “All right,” he agreed. He fished his phone back out of his pocket and handed it to Tyler-Belle. “Call your uncle Josh and tell him the news.”

***

“So it’s a date,” Cadence’s roommate, Juliette, said from her perch on the sofa where she was set to binge watch Orange is the New Black.

“No,” Cadence said from her bedroom where she was changing her blouse. “It’s not a date. Carmelita Navarro is my client. It’s a meeting with clients.”

“With the best man as your date.”

“No,” she insisted. “With the best man and his daughter also attending the concert.”

“How old is his daughter? She’s like seven, I read.”

“Probably. Seven or eight. I didn’t ask.” She finished buttoning her blouse and came back into the living room. “I just happened to have the tickets because Aunt Melly sent them to me.”

“She always sends you tickets. You never go.”

“I’m always busy when her concerts fall.”

“You have been. Except now when you have a date,” Juliette pointed out, looking smug.

“It’s NOT a date.” She was sorting things from her voluminous purse into a smaller handbag.

“Cadence. You changed your blouse four times. You don’t even do that before weddings.”

“The first two were too hot. It’s always really hot in the auditorium. And the third one was missing a button. I don’t have time to sew it on.”

“Sure. And the fact that you ended up with that one had nothing to do with Christian Soriano telling you at his trunk show that it should be your signature color.”

Cadence felt a flush creep up her fair skin. She opened her mouth to reply, but a knock at the door interrupted.

Juliette slid her bowl of popcorn onto the sofa. “I’ll get it,” she said. “Although I just want to point out here that none of your clients ever pick you up at home.” She unlocked the door and pulled it open to find Travis, clad in a navy blue dress shirt and black trousers that did everything right for his physique.

At the sight of him in her doorway, Cadence momentarily paused in the act of sliding her lipstick into her handbag. “Hi.”

Juliette’s look was positively triumphant. “You must be Travis. I’m Juliette. Cadence’s roommate since college.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said before looking at Cadence. “We’re here with the car. No rush, or anything. Carmelita is just bizarrely punctual for a celebrity.”

Cadence pulled herself together and snapped shut the handbag. What in the world was her problem, she wondered? She was acting like a teenager on prom night. True enough that Travis was an incredibly good looking and compelling man, but she was 32, not 15. Get a grip, Cadence, she thought. “I’m ready.”

Juliette leaned against the door frame. “Is, um, your daughter going?” she asked Travis. “Cadence says she’s a real firecracker. And I mean that in a good way.”

“She is,” he said. The same smile Cadence noticed always touched his lips when he talked about Tyler-Belle tugged at the corner of his mouth. “She’s in the car with Josh and Carmelita. She loves Carmelita.”

Cadence eased past Juliette into the hallway. “We can go,” she said. She gave Juliette a dry look. “We’ll be back after the concert.”

“I won’t wait up,” Juliette said with a smug grin as she pushed the door shut.

They walked in silence to the elevator—a converted freight elevator in the old warehouse building where Juliette and Cadence shared a large loft apartment. Travis reached for the mechanism the pulled the metal door open, then paused and looked at Cadence. “Look, I—I just want you to know how much I appreciate this. Emily loved playing bells, and it was something she shared with Tyler-Belle. I just haven’t been able to face listening to a concert since she died.”

Cadence’s heart softened a little more. At this rate, she thought, it was going to be a marshmallow by morning. “I know how that feels. It’s sort of ironic, really. My mother always used to say that, ‘no instrument unites people more than handbells,’ but I haven’t been able to go to one of my aunt’s concerts since my mother died. They enjoyed it so much together. So really, I should thank you. My aunt will be so glad I’m there.”

He pulled open the wide door. “Not so sure she’ll be thrilled about Carmelita,” he quipped. “Chaos seems to follow that woman everywhere. There will be reporters for sure, and probably a news crew or two.”

That made Cadence laugh. “Are you kidding? What handbell group wouldn’t die to have a news crew show up at their concert? It’s not the world’s most high-profile instrument.”

“True,” he mused, “which is why I was surprised there weren’t tickets for tonight. I didn’t think handbells were that popular.”

“The Roanoke Ringers do this event every year as a charity benefit for the Historic Preservation Fund. It’s always sold out because they get corporate sponsors to buy blocks of tickets and give them away. There are also a bunch of other instrumentalists who play, and they usually commission a piece for the event. I think tonight it’s an arrangement for bells and tuba.”

His eyebrows lifted. “Really?”

She laughed slightly. “They like to think of themselves as really cutting edge. I mean, nothing says ‘musical innovation’ like bells and tuba.”

They stepped onto the elevator and Travis closed the door. “That explains the ticket shortage,” he said dryly.

She hit the down button. “What? Not expecting ‘A Few of our Favorite Rings with the Roanoke Ringers’ to be a hot ticket.”

He slanted her a knowing look. “Only for nerds like us.”

***

Travis found his gaze resting more often than it should on Cadence’s expressive face as Carmelita’s limousine carried them home from Buchanan. Carmelita was deep into wedding talk with Cadence. Tyler-Belle was leaning sleepily on Joshua’s arm while he feigned interest in the wedding plans, and Travis was blissfully free to ponder his own thoughts. He should have been thinking through the custom cabinet build he had to deliver tomorrow, but instead, he was thinking about Cadence. He’d known her less than twenty-four hours and already he was fascinated by her. The feeling made him uncomfortable. After Emily died, he’d thrown himself into his work and into taking care of Tyler-Belle. Emily had been the love of his life, and the idea of having to do life without her had nearly strangled him. If it hadn’t been for Tyler-Belle, he doubted he would have made it. It had been three years since he’d noticed a woman the way he had noticed Cadence today. He had immediately found himself drawn to her confidence and her poise. He could only imagine how many balls she had in the air with Carmelita’s wedding. He knew enough to realize that the stress the event was placing on small-town Frost had to have Cadence mired in a million little details. At least Carmelita, bucking the celebrity stereotype, hadn’t asked for anything weird—except maybe a handbell quartet from Oslo, Minnesota, but still, the sheer size of this event was straining every resource in the Roanoke Valley and Cadence was responsible for holding everything—and everyone—together. Yet, she’d greeted him and Tyler-Belle with her warm smile and the same effortlessness she seemed to apply to everything. She’d even made time for this handbell concert, and somehow, having her there, had eased the pain at the memory of Emily’s love for handbells. In a particularly poignant phrase of the music, she’d made eye contact with him, and he’d read the sympathy in her eyes as they’d shared a moment of loss eclipsed by a moment of sweet memory.

Watching her now as she talked through the creative solution she and Molly had found to table and seat covers, he was struck by how animated her face was and how compelling he found it. Her eyes were deep green. They reminded him of the still ocean water he and Josh had fished on their senior trip before his wedding to Emily. He hadn’t noticed it that morning, but they matched the color of the shirt she had on, and that evening, he’d seen flecks of gold in them. That observation had immediately preceded the realization that he was probably losing his mind. Before that morning, if asked, he would have been able to identify three known eye colors: brown, blue and green. Now he had to add ‘Cadence’ to the list.

“What do you think, Travis?” Carmelita’s voice cut into his reverie.

“Honey,” Josh said, “Travis has been married before. He’s going to say, ‘whatever you like is what I like.’”

Cadence shot Travis a smile that made him notice the full curve of her mouth and the way her smile, which was slightly higher on one side, lit up the car. “If every member of every wedding party we work with would adopt that attitude my life would be easier.”

Tyler-Belle yawned. “I think you should have the blue ones,” she said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Travis agreed, hoping he’d guessed correctly.

Carmelita jabbed Josh in the arm. “See, Querido, even Travis agrees.”

Josh gave him a knowing look. “Honey—he’s surrounded by women who all say blue. He wouldn’t care if you were talking about the champagne. He’d agree.”

Tyler-Belle lifted her head from Josh’s arm. “Is there blue champagne?”

“No,” Travis told her. “Go back to sleep. You promised.”

She yawned again. “I can’t help it. The bells were so pretty. I can’t get that last song out of my head.” She’d watched the concert with wonder and excitement and Travis had fought a sense of guilt that he’d kept her from the world of handbells for so long. Because of his work schedule, she’d started accompanying her mother to rehearsals almost from infancy. Tyler-Belle had drifted to sleep many nights listening to handbells, but because Emily had been a church bell director, Tyler-Belle had never heard bells play anything but sacred music. Tonight’s concert had featured a range of classical music, sacred tunes, movie and Broadway themes, and even a pop piece or two. When they played “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen, Tyler-Belle had lost her eight-year old heart.

She was looking at Carmelita with wide-eyed wonder. “Didn’t you think so, Carmelita?”

“I love handbells,” the actress exclaimed. “When I was growing up, the church my parents and I attended always played them on Christmas Eve. I just think they’re magical.” She turned to Cadence. “I had no idea your aunt was a handbell player, Cadence. You didn’t tell me.”

“She and my mother played duets for years. Lots of weddings, actually. That’s probably how I ended up in the wedding planning business.” She pushed a strand of brown hair behind her ear—something Travis had noticed she frequently did when she was concentrating. Her hair was an interesting color, darker than brown and lighter than black. The low light in the limousine gave it the luster of polished walnut.

At that thought, he wiped a hand over his face. He was definitely losing it. Cadence touched his knee in concern, “Travis? Are you all right?”

He fought the urge to flinch at the warmth of her hand. Hell, no, he thought. He was definitely not all right when the feel of her fingers on his knee was sending a streak of warmth through him. “Fine,” he ground out, then struggled to soften his tone. “I’m fine. Just have a lot to do tomorrow.”

Josh gave him a sympathetic look. “Man, I’m sorry. I know you’re still running a business and doing all of this, too.”

“It’s fine,” he assured his friend. “I’m managing.”

“Cadence is helping,” Tyler-Belle chimed in.

“Barely,” Cadence assured them. “We just got things worked out with the hotel on the catering issue.”

“Oh, good,” Carmelita said. “I like Vivian.”

“Everyone loves Vivian,” Cadence agreed.

They neared the outskirts of town, and Carmelita’s face lit with a sudden idea. She grasped Cadence’s hands. “Cadence, would you mind if we stopped by your place and looked at those chair covers? I trust you totally, but I’m just so curious to see what you worked out.”

“Honey—” Josh interceded. “Cadence has been at work all day. I’m sure—”

Cadence shook her head. “It’s all right. It won’t take but a minute, and we’re going right by there.” She looked at Travis. “Is it all right if Tyler-Belle is out another few minutes?”

Tyler-Belle warmed to the idea of being included in the wedding plans. “I want to see them, too,” she said. “Can we look at my dress while we’re there?”

Cadence gave her a sympathetic look. “It’s really something, isn’t it?” She said. “But it’s down in alterations having the last details stitched.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And I’m not allowed down there.”

That was the moment when Travis Brock realized he was good and truly lost. He had no more interest than Josh in looking at chair covers, but the way she talked to his daughter, hell, even the idea of thirty more minutes with Cadence and her gold-flecked eyes and walnut-colored hair was enough to have him set aside every reasonable objection he had. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he said.

Josh regarded him with a raised eyebrow as Tyler-Belle and Carmelita responded with similar glee.

“Best night ever,” Tyler-Belle insisted.

“True enough, Princesa,” Carmelita agreed.

Josh rapped on the window to relay instructions to the driver. “This is an interesting turn of events,” he said, his gaze firmly fixed on Travis. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

***

She still hadn’t lost her poise, Travis noted, carefully watching Cadence as she stood among the broken glass in the reception area of The Wedding Belle surveying the damaged display cases now devoid of their English Handbells. Her mother’s bells. A sheriff’s car parked in front of the building with its blue lights on was causing an eerie strobe effect in the dimly lit reception area. Cadence hadn’t turned on the overhead lights, relying instead on the glow of street light through the large windows. Josh’s limousine had brought them to the front of the building where they’d found the door standing open. Travis had unsuccessfully tried to prevent Cadence from rushing inside where she’d discovered the broken display cases. Carmelita and Josh had agreed to take Tyler-Belle home with them while Travis waited with Cadence to call the Sheriff. Even then, she’d held on to her formidable self-control. He was beginning to wonder just how tightly she clung to that poise and what it would look like when it slipped.

Deputy Sanders, having arrived to take the report was talking on the dispatch radio at his shoulder requesting a forensics team. Travis moved to put a hand on Cadence’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” he prodded.

“Nothing else seems to be missing,” she said. “Don’t you think that’s odd?”

“Bells are expensive. Someone may have stolen them to pawn them.”

She continued to stare at the cases. “There’s a lot of stuff in here that’s worth money. They didn’t take the computers. Or the jewelry. Just the bells.”

Deputy Sanders joined them. “I sure am sorry about this, Cadence.”

She drew a steadying breath. “Me, too.”

“We’re going to do our best to find who did this and get those bells back for you. I can promise you that.”

“I know you are, Butch,” she told him.

“I’ve got a forensics team on the way, and if you like, I can call Eddy Maswell to see about coming to clean up for you and changing the locks so you can open in the morning.”

“Eddy Maswell has better things to do tonight than sweep up some broken glass. We’ll get it.”

Butch tried again. “All I’m sayin’ is, it’s gonna take a while for us to go through everything, and you can’t disturb the scene ’til we’re done. You don’t need to wait here for that. Eddy will be glad for the work.”

She opened her mouth to object, but Travis interrupted. “Make the call please,” he told Butch.

Cadence glared at him. “We really can—”

He interrupted her. “I know it’s not my business. Hate me later, but you don’t need to stay here and deal with sweeping up glass and changing locks when you’ve got other things to worry about. Besides,” he fixed her with a knowing look, “whether you want to say it or not, they were your mother’s bells.”

He saw something flicker across her gaze—the gold flecks deepened and her focus seemed to sharpen for a moment before she brought it back under control. The first signs, he thought, of her poise slipping. “I am aware of that,” she said. Her voice sounded tight without its usual lilt.

“It’s okay to be upset, you know,” he told her.

He didn’t think he imagined the slight shake of her head. “I’m going to be fine.”

He wasn’t sure if that was for his benefit or hers, but before he had the chance to figure it out, the door opened, the overhead lights flickered on and Cadence’s Aunt Melly arrived with a rush of cold night air and a sense of outrage.

“Good heavens, Butch. What’s going on?” she demanded.

Travis had met Melly briefly at the concert. A formidable woman with a level head and a certain eccentricity was how he’d summed her up. She’d thanked them all for coming, clearly undaunted by Carmelita’s fame and the ubiquitous camera crew, and asked the bride and groom why they hadn’t hired local for their wedding handbell needs. Carmelita had handled the exchange with her usual grace and practicality—something Travis found both refreshing and surprising about his friend’s fiancé. For all the fame and wealth, she was really a delightful woman with a warm heart and a wide streak of common sense. Travis knew exactly why Josh had fallen for her. Carmelita had smoothly explained to Melly that in deference to Josh’s desire for a small, intimate ceremony, the wedding ceremony itself was being held in a room at the vineyard with space only for immediate family, the wedding party, and the Oslo quartet, but then a public celebration of vows and reception would follow in two very large heated tents on the grounds of the vineyard. She’d be delighted, she had assured Melly, to have the Roanoke Ringers provide music for the public ceremony and would pay them handsomely. When Carmelita had named a price, Melly, to her credit, had showed no sign of surprise. She’d quickly retorted that she’d “run it by the board.” Everything in handbells, Travis knew—from the instruments to the table skirts—was expensive. Groups never had enough funding, typically operated on a shoestring budget, and did frequent fundraising just to keep their bells serviced and maintained. Paying gigs were few and far between. More often, handbell ensembles had to beg locations to let them play. The sum Carmelita had offered probably covered three to five years of the Roanoke Ringers operating expenses. But Melly gave no indication that Carmelita’s offer was overly generous. Instead, she’d looked at Cadence and simply stated. “Acceptable. I’ll let you know next week.”

Then, Travis had caught the amusement behind Cadence’s nod of assent. Now, he caught the way her head tilted back slightly and she shot a quick glance at the broken display case, as if she were uncertain how her aunt would react to the missing bells. He was finding that he caught a lot of things about Cadence—and if he thought about that too much, it spooked him a little. So he turned his attention to Melly, instead, moving ever so slightly between the two women to put a shield in front of Cadence. “Ms. Timely,” he said. “We just discovered the break in when we got back from the concert.”

“Aunt Melly—” Cadence moved to stand next to Travis. “How did you—”

“Cadence, you should know how these things work. Butch was having coffee over at the Nickel Cup where he goes when he has a break so he can see Sally. Sally’s sister works at the Dew-Drop-Inn in Buchanan where Tom Norris is the manager. Tom is married to Evelyn who is Edna Blaylock’s hairdresser. Edna’s son, Richard is Ruth Patterson’s first cousin and Ruth’s piano tuner, Martin Cresswell is married to Georgia Cresswell who plays position 2 in the Roanoke Ringers. I knew about the call probably before Butch got over here.”

“It’s true,” Butch admitted. “I was talking to Sally when the call came through.”

“So the real question,” Melly added, “is what is Frost’s finest going to do now to recover these bells. It’s a $10,000 theft, Butch. That’s grand larceny.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Butch assured her. “I’m aware of that.”

“Then time’s wasting, Butch. Those bells are somewhere. You need to put out a notice to every pawn shop, antique store and music store in a two hundred mile radius and check eBay and Craigslist. If the thief stole them to sell, he’ll want to get rid of them as soon as possible.” She looked at Cadence. “Did they take the cases?”

Cadence shook her head. The cases aren’t even here—they’re in storage. We use them for transport, so I only pull them out when I need them.”

“No cases,” Melly mused. “Then they took them loose, or brought their own cases.” She looked at Butch. “Write that down, Butch.”

He nodded and scribbled in his book “No cases. Loose.”

“It’s an important clue. Anyone who took those bells to sell them had to have a way to transport them without damaging them. They’re heavy, and you can’t just toss them in a bin.”

“No bins,” Butch said as he wrote.

Melly looked around. “Is anything else missing?”

“I don’t think so,” Cadence said. “I can’t be 100% certain without looking through everything, but nothing else looks disturbed, my office door is still locked, and so is the door to the showroom.”

“Hmm. So they came for the bells. Interesting. Very well, Butch and I will take it from here,” Melly said. “You go home and get some rest. I assure you, I have this under control.”

“Aunt Melly—”

“Do not argue with me, Cadence. You’re not good here, and you’ve got plenty on your plate with all the wedding frou-frou. You’re hardly necessary at the scene of the crime.” She looked at Butch. “I assume you’ve called Eddy about getting the place cleaned up?”

“And changing the locks,” Butch said, visibly relieved he’d managed to meet her expectations.

“Very good.” Melly pursed her lips as she drummed her fingers on the reception counter. “That will take care of things in the short term. Cadence, you may leave with every assurance that we’ll find Hemmy’s bells in short order.”

“By the wedding?” Cadence asked.

Melly looked nonplussed. “The wedding?”

“The Oslo quartet is supposed to use them,” she explained. “They aren’t bringing their own equipment.”

“What type of group travels without their own bells? Never mind. A quartet from Oslo, obviously. Don’t concern yourself with that. You can use the Roanoke Ringer’s extra set of bells.”

“Won’t you need to run that by the board?” Travis asked smoothly.

“Not at all funny,” Melly said. “I was acting the professional when I told Ms. Navarro the board would have to vote. The board will do as I say.”

“It’s true,” Cadence said. “They will.”

“And well they should,” Melly asserted, unapologetic. “They are merely there to satisfy the Commonwealth’s non-profit laws. Not to make actual decisions. Heavens. Can you imagine the chaos if Martin Detweiller were actually in charge of anything other than hauling the trailer and maintaining the equipment? That’s not a world I want to live in.”

The door opened again as Butch’s forensic team arrived. The deputy moved to instruct them, and Travis took the opportunity to address his primary concern—getting Cadence out of the sea of glass she was standing in and somewhere she could allow herself to react to the theft. “Cadence, let me take you home.”

“I really should—”

“No,” he said. “You shouldn’t. If Deputy Sanders needs anything, he’ll call you.”

“Sure will,” Butch said from across the room. “You go on home, Cadence. We’ll let you know as soon as we know anything.”

She looked unsure, “Travis—”

“Trust me,” he said, looping his fingers under her elbow and guiding her carefully through the glass. In this, he had experience. “You don’t need to be here for this part.”

***

Cadence drew a steadying breath as she hung up the phone in her office the next morning. Molly sat across the desk, pensive and uncharacteristically reserved. “What’s up?” she asked.

“The Oslo Four are not coming.”

“Not coming? Like at all? How’s that possible?”

“They are currently in North Korea on tour. There’s been some kind of complication with their return visas. They aren’t sure yet when it’s going to get cleared up, but he don’t feel they can commit to the wedding. Even when they get back, they’ll have too many things to clear up with and deal with in their personal live and don’t feel they can commit to the wedding.”

“Who goes to North Korea on tour?”

“Bell ringers from Oslo, apparently. So first the bells are missing. And now the quartet. This is turning out to be a great week.”

“I mean, seriously. Who does that?”

“Molly—”

“Right. Sorry. Still. Wow.”

“I don’t know what we’re going to do at this point. I guess we run it by Carmelita and see if she wants us to hire another quartet.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just play music?”

“I don’t think the bride’s gonna love the idea of a boombox.”

“I’ve got a mean looking bluetooth speaker.”

Cadence grimaced. “Is this day going to get any worse?”

“Do they have any leads for you?” Molly asked. “Anything at all?”

“Melly says she’s working on it. That’s all I know.” She pushed back her chair and moved to stand at the window, her back to the office. The view of Frost’s busy downtown had always pleased her, but today, the gray winter sky mirrored her mood. “Did we bite off more than we can chew, Molly? Tell me the truth. Are we going to get through this?”

“Cadence, you’re the best. The best at what you do. You know how these things are. There are always little hiccups, but Carmelita is reasonable—thankfully. I’m sure if you just talk to her—”

“I can ask Melly about it, but I don’t think the Roanoke Ringers have a quartet. And we could probably hire one—from somewhere—Carmelita wouldn’t mind paying the bill. But Hans Zimmer arranged the music they were supposed to play—”

“Hans Zimmer? Like The Lion King, Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean Hans Zimmer?”

“Yeah. You didn’t know.”

“You didn’t mention it.”

“Carmelita asked him to score the wedding.”

That made Molly laugh. “Well, all right then. I never heard it put quite like that, but I’m sure it’s spectacular.”

“It is. And, apparently, it’s also beastly difficult. The Oslo Four has been rehearsing it for months. It’s not as simple as just getting four bell ringers together to play Pachelbel’s Canon.”

“Carmelita may have to compromise.”

“It’s the wedding of the century. Haven’t you heard? There is no compromising.”

“I have an idea,” Travis said from the doorway.

Cadence turned, surprised. “Travis. I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I had an installation today I thought I was going to have to oversee, but I have a very good team that works for me. They can handle it.” He propped his shoulder against the door frame. His elegant, broad shoulder that she’d leaned on as he’d walked her the four blocks to her apartment last night. The same shoulder that was just the right height for her forehead when he’d turned her over to a very concerned Juliette and promised he’d call her today. “Besides,” he continued. “I told you’d I check on you today.”

“You promised you’d call.”

“Even better. Live and in person.”

Cadence made a valiant attempt at her first smile of the morning. “Even better,” she concurred.

Molly stood. “I am going to go call Calisto’s people and see if I can get an update on the dress,” she said. “We need to get Carmelita in here for a fitting.” She nodded to Travis. “Nice seeing you again, Mr. Brock.”

“Travis.”

“Travis.” She glanced back at Cadence. “I’ll double check on the tent heater and the florist. I think he finally found the blue hydrangea—”

“True blue.”

“True blue. Not lavender. I got it. And I’m going to follow up with Leticia about the hair salon. Carmelita is insistent on taking the bridal party over there instead of having them come to the house. Doesn’t she have a professional stylist and make up artist for this?”

“Local business,” Cadence said. “Joshua Hardison’s mother has her hair done at Letty’s.”

Travis moved from the door so Molly could pass. Cadence looked tired, he noted. He wasn’t surprised. He’d walked with her the four blocks to her apartment, and by the second block, he’d seen that indomitable poise begin to slip. By the third block, her shoulders had started to shake, and as they turned the corner onto her street, she’d collapsed into his arms, sobbing. “it’s so silly,” she’d told him. “It’s just a thing. No one was hurt. Nothing that’s damaged can’t be fixed with money. Why am I so upset?”

He held her firmly and let her cry it out. It had taken her twenty minutes in the cold to regain her composure. Finally, when she’d pulled away from him, she’d looked vulnerable and uncrushable at the same time. “It’s okay, Cadence,” he’d assured her. “It’s normal to feel violated over something like this.”

“But you—” she’d met his gaze, her eyes still teary. “I know this had to be worse for you. I mean, the concert. The break-in.”

Travis didn’t bother to deny the streak of pain he’d felt as they’d entered The Wedding Belle. It had been all too familiar and aroused all-too fresh memories of that awful night he’d lost Emily. “Part of healing is knowing that sometimes it’s still going to hurt,” he’d assured her.

Then he’d taken her home and left her with a concerned Juliette with a promise to call her today. He’d left his car downtown that afternoon, but the five block walk in the winter air had done nothing to chase away the turmoil in his head. He was drawn to Cadence. He was attracted to Cadence. That admission, coupled with tonight’s painful memories of Emily, had him reeling. He’d picked up his car and headed to Josh’s to check on Tyler-Belle. He was unsurprised his friend met him at the door with a beer and rock-solid advice. After inquiring about Cadence’s well-being, Josh sat him down in the same den where they’d shared a hundred memories. Here, they’d watched the Super Bowl, grieved after the death of Josh’s grandfather, whom they’d both admired. Here, they had dreamed of college graduation. Here, Travis had asked Josh to be his best man. Here, Josh had told Travis he had decided to take over the vineyard, though he’d sworn through college he’d never do it. Here, Josh had told Travis he was in love with Carmelita. Here, Travis had broken to pieces telling Josh about Emily’s death. Here was a place that defined their friendship. Here was a place they felt like brothers. And here was the place Josh helped set him free from one of the final chains of Emily’s tragic death. “Just because you meet the person you’re going to love for the rest of your life,” Josh had told him last night, “doesn’t mean you don’t have room to love someone else. Falling in love with Cadence doesn’t mean you don’t still love Emily.”

Travis had slept little and planned much that night.

“And if Letty can’t handle the wedding party at her shop,” Cadence was saying, “we may have to see about renting space. Which means renting chairs and sinks. Can you look into that, please?”

Molly grimaced. “Why can’t Carmelita just get her hair done at Joe’s Barbershop? He’s got plenty of space.”

“I’m guessing,” Travis said, “it’s ’cause Joe does a pretty mean high and tight and he’s not too bad with a fade, but he’s got limits when it comes to fishtail braids.”

Molly’s eyebrows lifted. “Fishtail braids? Not bad, Travis. I mean—for a barbershop kinda guy.”

“I’ve been married and I have a daughter. I know my way around hairstyles and fingernail polish.”

She glanced back at Cadence. “Anything else you need me to do this morning?”

“Not unless you’ve got a contact in North Korea who can free the Oslo Quartet.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said as she left the office.

Cadence dropped into her chair. “I am exhausted,” she admitted.

“I’m sure you didn’t sleep well.” He lowered his tall frame into the chair Molly had vacated. Everything in Cadence’s world was designed for brides. It was like entering a land where men were foreign and nothing fit. “I just wanted to see how things are going.”
“I’m better today. Melly tells me they don’t know anything yet.”

Travis fixed her with a knowing look. “I’m not talking about the missing bells,” he said. “I mean, how are you doing?”

“I’m not a totally basket-case if that’s what you mean. Juliette pumped me full of some herbal something—which I think had more bourbon than herbs in it. I slept like the dead. It didn’t really hit me until I got here this morning and saw the cases.”

“They seem to have done a good job cleaning up.”

“Eddy went above and beyond. He boarded them up with paneling so they don’t look like a crime scene. It helps the clients not to feel spooked.”

Travis nodded. “I thought about that last night and decided I’d come do that for you today. I was expecting him to use plywood.”

“Me, too.” She smiled ruefully. “It’s generally a nice place to live, Frost. We have good neighbors. Did Tyler-Belle get to school today all right? I know she was upset.”

“I decided to let her stay with Josh and Carmelita last night and skip school.”

“Really?”

“I mean, how big of a deal is it if you miss a day of second grade? I don’t think it’s going to ruin her chances to get into Harvard.” That squeezed a laugh out of Cadence. He nodded appreciatively. “That’s good to hear,” he told her.

“So where is she today?”

“Shopping with Carmelita—who sends her love, by the way—and will probably buy Tyler-Belle something ridiculously extravagant.”

“Probably. She’s so kind.”

And classy, he thought. It was one of the things he liked best about her. “She already asked me to see if I could find a set of bells to replace yours. I had to explain to her that you can’t get them that fast from the factory. They’re not like shoes. You have to order them months in advance.”

“She’s just such a nice and thoughtful person.”

“She really is,” he admitted. He remembered when Josh had told him he was going to marry Carmelita, he’d expected her to be a high-maintenance Hollywood diva, but the first day he’d met her, Josh had brought her to Travis’ carpentry shop. She’d been clad in jeans and a t-shirt. She’d asked a million questions about cabinet-making and had begged him to let her sand down a hand-tooled piece with his rotary sander. She’d told him all about how her abuelito—her grandfather—was a wood carver and how much she’d missed the feel and smell of unfinished wood. And Travis liked her. He liked who she was, and more importantly, he liked the way she looked at Josh Hardison. “Did it shock you, too?” he asked Cadence.

Cadence seemed to hesitate before deciding she could drop her guard with him. “I was prepared for a celebrity Bridezilla. Despite the size and the challenges, Carmelita’s wedding is a cakewalk compared to Nicole Dresden’s.”

Travis had a vague recollection of the stories he’d heard about the Dresden wedding. “Ah—the mayor’s daughter.”

“Did word travel all the way to Buchanan about that fiasco?”

“We’re very civilized in Buchanan. The only reason I heard about the bridal ferry and the epic arrival across Kinkaid pond is because one of my carpenters had to install the throne for Nicole.”

“Yeah. Cleopatra’s barge. Good grief. So after that, Carmelita’s easy. When One Direction refused to play at Nicole’s wedding, Molly told her to get over it and we hired a DJ. All Carmelita wanted was a handbell quartet to play Hans Zimmer’s score. Now, I can’t make it happen and I feel awful.”

Travis rubbed his hands on his thighs, feeling uncharacteristically nervous. He was a little out of his comfort zone with this, but Josh’s words echoed in his head and in his heart. Caring about Cadence didn’t lessen his love for Emily. “About that,” he said, carefully. “I have an idea.”

***

An hour later, Cadence found herself standing in the workshop in Travis’ house looking at what was simultaneously the oddest and most artistically genius thing she’d ever seen. About five feet tall, with a series of gears and motors that hummed with quite precision, it looked like a cross between Optimus Prime and Michelangelo’s David. Only clothed. And made of exquisite hard wood and polished copper. And playing two handbells. She stared at it in fascination, speechless.

“Meet Dreyfus,” Travis said as he folded the cotton drape that had covered it. The floor had a thin layer of sawdust, and the whole place had an organic smell that reminded her of everything pleasant about Travis.

Cadence walked around the free standing structure, fascinated. “Dreyfus?”

“I don’t know why. That’s just what I call him.”

“He’s, um, something.”

“He plays,” he told her.

She looked at him, incredulous. “What?”

“It’s kind of a long story. I told you Emily used to direct the handbell choir at church. I knew it was a constant frustration that people were always missing from rehearsals and performances because she’d come home sometimes so discouraged or frustrated about it.”

“Every handbell director knows that. One ringer per position—so every ringer counts. It’s not like missing one violinist in an orchestra. In bells, you have to have the entire ensemble to play the piece. And it’s tough enough to find a sub—let alone a sub who can just step in and play with no practice. The group relies on each other. You need everyone.”

He nodded. “That’s what Emily said. So one day, I just started working on him—mostly as a joke. I figured I could give her something to laugh about. I mean, what if she had a permanent sub who was never sick, never left town, was always on time, and played every part right the first time?”

“Any handbell director would kill for that.”

He ran a hand over Dreyfus’ arm, stopping to check the free movement of the wrist and elbow joints. “The actual structure was pretty easy, and I knew enough about robotics that I could make his arms move in the right way so he could ring two bells, but I had no idea what it would take to make him play on cue.”

“On cue? Wait. He—it—this—plays bells on demand. Like a regular player?”

“Any part.” Travis flipped up a wooden door on the back of the figure. There’s a scanner and a micro controller in here. You scan the music in to program it and tell him which bells he plays.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No. He’s programmed for an arrangement of Midnight Clear right now—it was Emily’s favorite carol. Her choir was working on an arrangement when she…” he trailed off as he reached inside Dreyfus to activate him. “He’ll synchronize his playing with the choir he’s with. There are some limitations, obviously. He can’t switch bells, and he doesn’t do any of that stuff that requires a table. He can’t use mallets either. I didn’t get that far in the design.” He withdrew his hand and closed the back panel. You can either run him from the back, or there’s an app.”

“He has an app?” she asked. “Like a phone app? Are you telling me you can turn him on from your cell phone?”

“Yeah. Android only, though.”

“Well, I mean, get with the times, Travis.”

He laughed. “Sorry. The other platform is too expensive.” He snapped the panel lock into place and Dreyfus’ head immediately lifted as he readied his two bells and started playing them.

Cadence watched, mesmerized. “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.

“Yeah. Weird, I know.”

“Travis, this is incredible. I mean, incredible. Like unbelievably incredible. How is this even possible?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have been without Austin Tremoski.”

Austin Tremoski was a tech billionaire who had made a fortune in the virtual reality business before leaving San Bernadino to settle his sprawling tech company in the Roanoke Valley. Until Carmelita, he’d been the area’s most successful, and eccentric celebrity.

Travis explained, “I was building the custom cabinets in his home office in Roanoke. He liked being in there while I was working and just sort of hanging out. I don’t think he spends a lot of time around non-technical people. So I was making conversation and I told him about Dreyfus and how I’d hit a wall when it came to programming him. He just got really excited about the possibility and put a couple of interns on it as a project because he felt the experience would be a useful learning exercise for his development team. He told me, later, they were able to apply some of what they learned to the prosthetic technology they developed. One of them wrote the app so you can set the tempo or whatever from your phone and then just hit play. He’s designed to sync to the other players.”

“Travis—”

“I got the idea because Emily had this set of dolls that would sing the twelve days of Christmas. You push a little button on their hands and they’ll sing individually, or all together, and they always sing different parts. Tyler-Belle is fascinated with those things. They are only like eight inches tall. So, I figured if they could pack that much programming into an eight inch doll, why wouldn’t it work for Dreyfus?”

“Did Emily get the chance to see this?”

He leaned his hip against the work bench. “I gave it to her early because her choir was supposed to play for the Christmas Eve service, but when she died—it didn’t work out that way.”

“Travis, I’m so sorry. I know this has to be really painful for you.”

“At times,” he acknowledged, “but I heal a little every day. I wouldn’t have thought this, but the bell concert actually helped. It made me remember how much Emily loved playing.”

She nodded. “I felt that way about Mom, too.”

“So, showing you this—I don’t know. It seemed natural. And only a little weird.”

Dreyfus finished the song and brought his two bells back to the resting position.

“It’s the most incredible thing I have ever seen. I mean honestly, I’m just speechless.”

“I can make three more before the wedding,” he told her, “it’ll be tight, but I can get it done.”

Cadence’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

It was in that moment that Cadence realized Travis was no ordinary man. Her mother had always said, ‘In your life, you’ll meet lots of talented men. Some will even flatter you. A few may fall in love with you. But the man worth loving is the one who will do extraordinary things for you just because he thinks you’re extraordinary.’

“But the problem,” Travis continued, “is the programming. I’m not sure Austin would still be willing to do it, and even if he would, I’m not sure there’s time.”

Extraordinary things, Cadence thought. This elegant, beautiful, caring, incredible man was willing to do this extraordinary thing for her. Sure, she could tell herself it was for Carmelita and Josh—but it wasn’t. He was going to work through the night, suspend his business and pour his soul into creating something he’d envisioned for Emily simply because he cared about her. She couldn’t suppress a laugh of pure joy.

“What’s so funny?” He asked.

“Travis Brock, you are absolutely amazing.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far.”

“No? Then trust me.” Cadence reached for her cell phone. “And as luck would have it, I happen to know that Austin Tremoski promised his new girlfriend an invitation to the wedding of the century.” She punched in a few numbers. “And Carmelita has been resisting because he’s a bit, well—”

“Jerky?”

“Yes.”

“Not really. He’s just one of those brainy kids who has no social skills when it comes to talking to actual people.”

“If he can spare me a team of programmers,” Cadence said, “I can probably get him an invitation.”

***

Three weeks later, Cadence pulled up an app on her phone and activated Dreyfus, Doris, Darlene and Steve. In perfect time, and exactly on cue, the quartet, elegantly clad in all black and featuring a few modifications she had suggested to Travis began playing Hans Zimmer’s score to Carmelita’s private ceremony. She’d had Travis adjust the mechanisms so each arm could manage eight bells—expanding Dreyfus’ capabilities to sixteen bells. So the quartet was now able to play 64 bells instead of eight—giving the automated ensemble the ability to play 5 octaves of bells. Zimmer had graciously agreed to allow a local handbell composer to alter the piece slightly to eliminate the need for table techniques, and at Melly’s suggestion, Travis had added sheepskin padding to the ‘shoulders’ to make damping possible. Cadence had given him every second she could spare, spending hours with him in the workshop sanding and finishing pieces, handing him screws, sweeping up sawdust and holding the end of tape measures as he’d created each hand crafted piece. And in those hours, they’d talked about everything from childhood stories to the difficult days of grief and loss.

Zimmer’s piece had a magical quality to it as the four ringers moved in perfect synchrony. And thanks to Melly, they were playing Cadence’s bells. When the bells didn’t turn up for sale, Melly had determined that the thief had to be someone with an interest in removing the bells from The Wedding Belle’s storefront, not in selling them for profit. It had taken a brief interrogation of Carmelita to determine that her cousin—the one who had leased the top floor of Meg’s apartment complex—was in debt to his record producer. Eduardo, a budding hip hop artist, had promised the producer he could provide all of the music for the ceremony, which was sure to generate global publicity. He had used his contacts in the North Korean record industry to stall the Oslo Quartet. As an additional safeguard, he’d hired a local percussionist to steal the bells with the intent of returning them after the wedding, certain he could persuade Carmelita to let him perform instead.

Melly had recovered the bells in days and, fortunately, they were in excellent condition as the percussionist had used salvaged bell cases to transport them. As a result, Eduardo and his percussionist were now brooding in the Frost Jail, and his invitation to the wedding had conveniently made its way into Austin Tremoski’s mailbox, giving the tech genius the incentive he needed to put an entire team of coders onto perfecting Dreyfus’ programming and app.

Cadence looked at the front of the room where Travis was standing next to a nervous-looking Josh Hardison. Travis made eye contact with her. As good as the man looked in jeans and a flannel shirt, he was positively breathtaking in a tuxedo. Cadence smiled at him as the door opened and Tyler-Belle started down the aisle with her basket of white roses. She paused momentarily when she saw the bells, then glanced back at Cadence. They shared a moment of joy before Tyler-Belle carried out the duty she was taking very seriously and scattered her petals along the runner. As the wedding party filed in, Cadence slipped into the hallway to check on Carmelita. Elegantly and simply dressed in the first of her three Calisto gowns, the actress was straightening her father’s bow tie. “Don’t be nervous, Papi,” she told him. “Everything is perfect.”

And it was, Cadence thought. “They’re ready for you,” she told Carmelita.” The actress beamed at her. “I can never thank you enough for making all this come together, Cadence. It’s absolutely everything I dreamed of.”

As Zimmer’s score reached a climax, Carmelita and her father entered the room. Cadence caught the look of wonder on Josh Hardison’s face. Perfection, indeed. She slipped into the room and leaned against the back wall with a feeling of deep satisfaction. The wedding of the century hadn’t gotten the best of her—thanks to Travis. It would be over in a matter of hours, and she would be taking a hard-earned, much-needed vacation. She watched as Tyler-Belle slid into her seat next to Josh’s mother. Mrs. Hardison had offered to let Tyler-Belle stay at the vineyard for a few days after the wedding. Carmelita’s driver would take her to and from school. Travis was going to be busy while Josh was away on his honeymoon with Carmelita.

Because, Cadence thought with a secret smile, her vacation had been Travis’ idea.

“Do you think when this is over,” he’d asked her late last night as he’d made the final adjustments to Dreyfus and friends, “You might like to go with me out to Smith Mountain Lake? Josh has a vacation home he said we could use. I think we could both use a break after the last couple of weeks.”

Cadence had looked at him in surprise. “Doesn’t Tyler-Belle have school?”

He’d wiped his hands carefully, holding her gaze. “I wasn’t planning on taking Tyler-Belle,” he said, carefully. “Just you.”

Cadence blinked. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

“Juliette will say it’s a date,” she quipped.

“It is a date.” Travis moved closer. His scent—sawdust, shampoo and Old Spice—was intoxicating. “It’s totally a date.”

Cadence had smiled and leaned into him—the perfect fit she’d noticed the night of the robbery.

Now, the bells finished playing as Carmelita reached the front. Josh took her arm, and led her to the minister. Cadence looked at Travis again. He was watching her, and as Josh and Carmelita started the next step in their story, Cadence had the sure feeling that her next chapter would be every bit as wondrous as theirs.

Copyright © 2017 by Neesa Hart.
 

Heart's Kiss Magazine: Issue 1: February 2017

Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor