Matched

By: Jamie Farrell
To Jill. Thanks for always being willing to talk about those hunky country boys with me while I was writing Matched. (Okay, and for continuing to talk to me about those hunky country boys even though Matched is finished.)





Chapter One



LINDSEY CASTELLANO’S love-hate relationship with love was trumped only by her hate-hate relationship with microphones. Yet here she was, at her sister’s second wedding reception, as the maid of honor again, staring down a microphone again, to toast the newlywed couple again, before an enormous crowd in her hometown of Bliss, Illinois, the Most Married-est Town on Earth.

And, once again, Lindsey wished Natalie had picked Mom to stand beside her instead.

At Nat’s first wedding, Lindsey had wanted to relinquish the attendant duty for several reasons. Because she hated microphones. Because she hated crowds almost as much as she hated microphones. Because Nat had picked the wrong groom.

This time, though, Lindsey wished she could’ve passed the honor to Mom simply because she wished Mom were still here.

“Good evening,” Lindsey said into the evil microphone. Her voice bounced off the white textured walls. The audience—a mix of family and wedding crashers—eyed her from the dance floor as though they could see her smiley face panties. Despite the blustery late December weather outside, Lindsey needed a fan and a cold drink. “I was told this would be a small thing. Friendlies only.”

A few people snickered. A few grimaced. Natalie, resplendent in her wedding attire of jeans and the Second Chance Misfits T-shirt that she and CJ had asked all their invited guests to wear, offered her a sympathetic smile and a thumbs-up. Behind her, CJ grinned like the evil redheaded SOB that he was. But he made Nat and her four-year-old son, Noah, happy. He also gave Lindsey free drinks at his bar and was always good for a laugh, so she actually liked him a lot.

Lindsey sucked in a breath that the microphone caught and amplified so loud, the Mars rovers probably heard it. Her champagne flute wobbled in her sweaty hand, and her pulse hammered hard enough to crack a diamond. Words. She had to say a few more words, then she could return to obscurity.

“So I’ll make this short.” She had to, because her tongue was getting thick and dry, and there was no telling what she’d say if she didn’t. She’d had ten years of practice as a divorce lawyer. She should be able to handle a few words. But microphones did her in every time. “To my favorite sister in the whole world, and the man who had better not ever have reason to see me in a professional capacity. Congratulations, and many happy returns.”

Dad lifted his glass. “To Nat and CJ!” Clapping and shouts of “Cheers!” spread through the ballroom, from the deejay to all eleven of CJ’s sisters—Lindsey’s new competition for Most Favored Aunt status—to the whole of Bliss’s bridal brigade, Knot Fest committee members, and Bridal Retailers Association honchos who had crashed the wedding.

Lindsey passed the microphone to the deejay and chugged her champagne, letting the sting of bubbly in her throat wash away her discomfort, then escaped the spotlight.

Nat grabbed her in a hug. CJ joined in. The goober knew Lindsey hated enclosed spaces, but he had thirty years’ worth of experience in tormenting sisters.

“Isn’t that the same thing you said at my first wedding?” Nat said.

“Yes, but this time I’m optimistic you won’t need me.” Lindsey’s voice was almost steady. “Mom would’ve liked CJ.”

Nat squeezed harder. “You’re still coming to karaoke afterward? Family only this time. Cross my heart.”

As if Lindsey could tell Nat no for anything today. “Absolutely. But no singing for me.”

“That’s a given,” Nat agreed with a laugh.

Lindsey gave CJ a well-placed elbow to the ribs, and he backed off with an amused chuckle. Nat let go as well. Lindsey bent and planted a smacker on Noah’s cheek, and while the deejay announced the first dance, she eased away.

She needed air.

Her dad squeezed her shoulder on her way past. “Beautiful, hon. Your mom would’ve loved every word.”

Lindsey’s eyes misted.

Melancholy wasn’t her favorite mood, but it was something she’d gotten used to since Mom passed away.

Lindsey held up her glass and reached deep for her normal poise. “I’m going for a refill. You need anything?”

He declined. Lindsey headed for the bar. Other guests offered what she took as pained smiles and nods. Or, possibly, the townsfolk of Bliss were not at all disturbed by her presence, and Lindsey’s discomfort, loneliness, and awkwardness here had only been amplified by the liquid courage she’d needed to make the toast.

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