With ten minutes to get to Blushing Bridal, Penelope Galbraith hugged her father. “I’ll be back in a half hour.”
“Take your time, Nelly,” he said as he embraced her. “This place will still be standing when you get back.”
Her laugh echoed throughout the lobby of Inn True Love as she slung her purse over her shoulder. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from the man who opened it.”
“And the future of it is in the best hands I could have asked for.” Her father gave her a supportive smile.
But the thought made her pause. The inn was about to be hers now that her mother and her father were retiring, and she had so many plans for it—but she couldn’t deny how nervous she was about it. There was a lot of work to be done. Work she couldn’t possibly do herself. She’d figure it out though. In time.
For now, she needed to meet Julia to see how her final fitting was going. She hadn’t seen her friend in the dress yet, so she was bursting with excitement to get there. After she gave her father an enthusiastic wave, she headed out the door with a travel mug of her favorite tea.
As Penelope traversed down Soul Road on her way to town, she tried not to stress. She was on her way to see her best friend in the dress she’d get married in. She didn’t have to think about how unprepared she felt to take the inn over in a couple of weeks. That was a problem for later. Instead, she’d enjoy the snow falling all around her, the crunch of it under her boots, and the way her winter coat kept her warm in the icy cold.
Even though Arizona had a reputation for being all sunshine and cacti, that was a relatively small part of the state. Just about everywhere north of Phoenix got some sort of winter weather. Tucked into a small corner near Flagstaff, True Love was no different. Though the town’s reputation was full of warm hearts and romance, they still had snow, blistery-cold winds, and ice. Lots of those things during some winters. Even a town full of people in love couldn’t stop Mother Nature’s winter wonderland.
Maybe that was because not everyone in True Love, despite its name and reputation, was in love.
Penelope, for example, was one those people. Sure, she loved her parents, the inn, and the town itself, even in spite of the drawbacks of small-town living. But that was a far cry from being in love. That, she hadn’t experienced. So she didn’t believe in the lore of the town, and she’d all but given up on it.
Instead, she chose to focus on running the inn, which was why her father was handing the reins over to her soon. She deeply cared about making it all it could be for a town that deserved the best. True Love was her home. It always would be, and she knew that the people who lived there would have her back on the changes she wanted to make to the inn.
That’s how True Love was.
As she passed Ryan Hedgewick’s hardware shop, Hammer and Nail, she remembered how he’d offered to hang flyers in his store window to promote the inn’s Spring Fling party last year. Then she walked by the diner and recalled how Carrie Ann and Norman, Ryan’s parents and the diner’s owners, had catered the event. Just past where Soul Road intersected with Heart Street, Allison Cayton’s coffee shop and bakery, Brewing Affection, was on the corner. She’d donated several desserts to the party too. And Chastity Moore, who owned Ever After, True Love’s bookstore, had provided a nice basket of books, notebooks, and bookmarks for the raffle.
The event had been great thanks to the townspeople, and Penelope was planning to do something like that again. It could raise funds for repairs and updating and breathe some life back into her spirit. She needed something good to look forward to, seeing as how true love was not going to be it.
But as she turned down Heart Street, she took a sip of her warm, minty tea and realized she already had something good to look forward to: Julia’s wedding, which was a week away. That was a wedding though. A celebration of love. And hopefully the end of Julia’s sad attempts at helping Penelope find it herself.
When she opened the door of Blushing Bridal, Julia was already in her dress near the corner of the shop. Swathed in satin the same color of the snow building up outside, with a veil to match, Penelope’s best friend had said yes to the dress, and she was gorgeous.
A gasp left Penelope’s mouth as her free hand flew to her lips. “Julia!” she exclaimed between her fingers. “That’s the one!” Then she set her tea and her purse on the counter on her way to join her friends in the back.
“I know!” Julia agreed, twirling in a circle in front of the full-length mirror. On the raised platform, she smoothed the skirt out and smiled at her reflection. “It’s absolutely perfect. And I can’t thank you and Olivia enough for finding it.”
Olivia Sutton, the owner of the bridal shop, met Julia’s gaze through the mirror. “It wasn’t a problem at all. Just doing my job for one of my favorite friends.”
“Don’t even start that,” Julia said. “You know you did more than you had to for me. Like staying open later than you usually do tonight to get me in and finding this right before my wedding.”
Penelope waved her friend off as she shed her winter gear. “What are bridesmaids and maids of honor for?” She flicked her gaze toward Olivia and raised her eyebrows. “Right?”
“Exactly,” Olivia agreed. “We’re happy to help make your dream wedding come true!”
Julia scoffed, but she was still smiling. “Oh, please. This all went above and beyond the call of duty and you know it.” Then she stepped off the platform, careful to pick the dress up off the ground.
Olivia grinned back at her. “I’ll go get everything you need to take the dress home tonight. Be right back.”
“Thank you,” Julia told her.
Penelope helped gather the white gown up so her friend could change out of it. “You’re so busy right now with your coaching business, and your wedding is right around the corner, Jules. We totally get it. And most of it’s already done. The favors are all made up and safe under the bed in my guestroom. Our dresses are coming in soon. We just have to pick the cake, settle up with Misty for the flowers… Almost done.” Then she smirked as Julia took one last peek at her reflection. “Besides, someone needs to keep you organized.”
As Julia caught Penelope’s gaze in the mirror, she laughed. “Isn’t that the truth?” Then she walked toward the dressing room. At the door, she pulled the veil and her hair over her shoulder so Penelope could help untie the crisscrossed ribbon that ran down her back. “Honestly though, Nelly. You’ve been so helpful, and I know you’re busy at the inn too. I’m thankful, and I can’t wait to repay you for everything you’ve done when it’s your turn.”
Penelope’s fingers froze in the middle of Julia’s back. But she recovered quickly and continued untying all the way to the end. Then she hummed under her breath—the only response she could think to give.
With her fists full of her dress, Julia spun to face her friend. “You’re not still on that, are you?”
Taking a step back, Penelope popped a hand on her hip. “Today’s your day. We don’t need to talk about me and my lack of a love life right now.” Then she shooed Julia into the dressing room. “This is the way I like it, remember? I don’t have time for anything else.”
“And that’s partially my fault!” Julia raised her voice to be heard through the curtain dividing them. “You’re my maid of honor, not my wedding planner. You don’t have to do so much for me.”
“I enjoy it though. It’s a nice break from working at the inn so much,” Penelope said, taking a seat as she waited for Julia.
“Your dad wouldn’t want you to be so focused on that,” Julia told her. Then she peeked her head out from behind the curtain. “You’re just making excuses not to date.”
After sending her friend a narrow-eyed glare, she laughed and threw her hands in the air. “So? It’s a hassle. The whole getting-to-know-you thing, going out on dates where you have to dress up, act properly, not eat too much… Come on now.”
Julia raised an eyebrow before closing the dressing room curtain. Through the material, she said, “It doesn’t have to be like that, you know. You can just be you on a date. If anyone can’t respect that, then they’re not the one for you.”
“Is that how you acted with Mark on your first date?” Penelope crossed her legs and linked her fingers around her knee. “Like yourself?”
A telltale pause filled the room. Then Julie tried to recover with, “That’s not the point. I’m older now. I’d definitely just be me if I had to date again.”
Penelope snickered to herself. “Whatever you say,” she muttered under her breath. Then, louder, she said, “Good thing you won’t ever have to,” as she straightened her blouse out. A wistful tone had tinged her words, and she hoped Julia hadn’t heard it.
Oh, but she had. She opened the curtain now that she was dressed again and stared Penelope down. “Just be yourself, Nelly.” She approached her friend to get her purse. “You don’t have to be fancy and proper. That’s building a relationship on a lie.”
“But you can’t show all of your crazy on the first date, Jules.” Penelope stood and smoothed her pencil skirt out. “Look. It doesn’t matter,” she said as Olivia came back to retrieve the dress. “I’m not going on another date any time soon anyway.”
“You’re not?” Olivia asked, taking the dress off the hook in the dressing room. “Your last date with Jerry didn’t work out?”
“Absolutely not,” she answered, shaking her head, her eyes wide.
Olivia gestured for the women to follow her to the front of the shop. “Was he the one who wanted to bring his mother along to interview you?”
“No, that was Stewart. Jerry kept eating off my plate during dinner.” Penelope reached for her tea when they arrived at the counter. “And then there was Johnathan, who kept correcting me whenever I’d refer to his job title as ‘receptionist.’”
“Oh yeah!” Olivia giggled as she zipped Julia’s dress up, her back to them. “What was it again?”
“Client services coordinator,” Penelope reminded her around a laugh. “I mean, it’s okay to prefer a cool job title over something that sounds boring, but he corrected me no less than four times. It was a little over-the-top particular.”
Olivia continued giggling, but Julia tapped her fingers on the counter, not partaking in the fun. That was for good reason though: Julia was the one who’d set Penelope up on those awful dates. So, when Olivia turned around and found Julia annoyed by Penelope’s most recent failures at dating, she abruptly stopped laughing and sealed her lips.
“It’s fine, Jules,” Penelope said, putting her hand over Julia’s on the counter. “Just…how about we don’t do that again?”
“They seemed like perfectly fine guys to me!” she said, her free hand out to her side.
“Of course they did,” Penelope reasoned. “You weren’t the one going out on dates with them. You never saw them in that kind of situation. But every time you play matchmaker with me, I do. And it’s not pretty.” She sipped her tea and then blew out a deep breath. “I need to be able to take my makeup off at the end of the day and not be afraid that he won’t like what he sees. I need to be able to have messy hair, wear my PJs on my days off, and not be criticized.” Then she sighed. “I just need to be myself.”
Julia pressed her lips into a tight line. After several quiet moments, she said, “Maybe the particular one here is you, Nelly.”
Penelope blinked a few times. Then she tilted her head to the side. “Are you saying my standards are too high?” She looked at Olivia for backup, but she only shrugged and lifted her hands in a surrender gesture, staying out of the quarrel.
“For a first date? Yeah. Maybe,” Julia hedged, shrugging one shoulder. “You could stand to not completely rule a guy out after only one date. That’s all I’m saying.”
With a deep exhale, Penelope blew her bangs off her forehead. “Say it all you want, but I’m not settling. I’m not dating guys who can’t spend one night as a normal person who does normal things.”
Julia swallowed hard. “So does that mean you’re not bringing anyone to the wedding?”
Nodding once, Penelope confirmed. “Right. I’m not.”
“Because I have one more guy who—”
“No.” Penelope shook her head, her brunette bun unmoving near the crown of her head, and vigorously waved her arms in front of her. “No. Absolutely not, Jules. No more setups. Especially not to your wedding—on Valentine’s Day. Not happening.” Then she looked toward Olivia. “You’re so lucky you have someone to take to events.”
“Yeah,” Olivia muttered, rolling her eyes. “So lucky.”
Her feelings about her relationship with Ryan not being of the romantic kind were pretty clear. And it pained Penelope to see her friend so unhappy, but she couldn’t make her do anything about it. Olivia had to live her own life and make her own choices.
“I think you’ll really like this guy!” Julia rushed to add in Penelope’s direction, appearing earnest. “He’s nothing like the others.”
“I feel like you’ve said that about everyone you’ve set me up with,” she reminded her.
Olivia nodded. “I think so too.”
“Thank you.” Penelope gave her friend a grateful look.
“But I also think,” Olivia added, “that you should give it one more shot.”
That grateful look fell right off Penelope’s face. “Seriously? Et tu, Brute?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “This is True Love. You know what they say about this town. You’re bound to find your true love, but you won’t if you don’t try.”
Penelope wanted to introduce herself as Kettle to the pot named Olivia. She was well aware of how she felt about Ryan even though she’d done nothing to make it known. And Penelope could understand why, but encouraging her to give love a shot was rather rich.
In any case, to make her friend happy by bringing someone to the wedding, she figured she could agree. It was one more night of her life and a second one she was going to spend at the wedding anyway. What could it really hurt?
But Olivia wasn’t getting away that easily.
“Fine,” Penelope relented. “I’ll do it.”
“Really?” Julia squealed. She clapped her hands, pure excitement pouring from her. “Oh yay! I’m so glad you’ll have a date to the wedding!”
“Hold your horses, lady,” Penelope said around a small chuckle. “I have one condition.” She held a single finger up and then slid her gaze over to Olivia.
If she couldn’t make her do something about it, she’d at least try to nudge her in the right direction.
Everyone froze—Julia out of anticipation, Olivia out of fear.
“What’s the condition?” Olivia asked carefully before gulping.
“I’ll go on this set-up date if you”—Penelope pointed that finger at Olivia—“ask Ryan to go with you to the second-annual Spring Fling party I’m throwing at the inn at the end of March. And not just as friends.”
“Ahh!” Julia squealed again. “Upping the ante! This is so exciting.”
Olivia turned an odd shade of green. Then she took her sweet time thinking about it, staying silent for several long, drawn-out moments. After a deep, shaky breath, she said, “Fine. Okay. Deal.”
Penelope grinned and took another drink of her tea. She knew that Julia’s setup wasn’t going to be anything to write home about, but she’d play along for her friends this one last time. Love was in Olivia and Ryan’s cards, and she’d help them figure that out once and for all. But it wasn’t in hers, even in a town called True Love.
She was sure of it.