Excerpt: Sandpiper Shore

CHAPTER 1

Jenna Bell made a living helping women find their Prince Charming. At twenty-nine, she still believed in the fairy tale—one true loves and happily-ever-afters. And while her success rate as a matchmaker was well publicized, she hadn’t found her own true love until six months ago. Admittedly, the past several months hadn’t been all hearts and flowers. Through no fault of her fiancé, of course.

Lorenzo had proposed to Jenna three days after her stepfather died. Some people might think his timing was off, her stepsisters, Arianna and Serena, certainly did. And yes, maybe even Jenna had too. But his heart had been in the right place. He’d wanted to give her something to look forward to, something to take her mind off the loss of the only father she had ever known—the man who’d made her believe in fairy tales and happily-ever-afters.

Richard Bell had lifted them from a life of poverty to a life of luxury in a matter of weeks. More importantly, he’d loved them heroically. He’d treated her mother like a queen and Jenna like a princess.

Thinking about her stepfather brought tears to her eyes, and she tried to blink them away. When that didn’t work, she frantically fanned her hands in front of her face. “Don’t cry. You’re not allowed to cry,” she murmured to herself while standing in the changing room at her stepsisters’ bridal shop in Harmony Harbor.

She was terrified a mascara-tinged tear might fall on her wedding gown. She’d just had her final fitting of the dress her stepsisters had slaved over for months. It was an Arianna Bell original, designed specifically with Jenna in mind. The dress was beyond gorgeous. She felt like a princess in the breathtaking, strapless tulle gown with intricate floral detailing from the bodice to just below the warm white satin bow at her waist.

Arianna had decided the color suited Jenna’s auburn hair and green eyes better than winter white. She’d been right of course, which wasn’t a surprise. When it came to fashion and style, no one could hold a candle to Arianna. Her ability to turn Jenna into a fairy tale princess was a perfect example since Jenna wasn’t exactly fairy tale princess material. Her stepsisters were though.

And sometimes, more so when they were younger, they treated her as abysmally as the stepsisters in a fairy tale. Which was why Jenna couldn’t afford to have anything go wrong. They’d had an amazing day together. It was everything she’d ever dreamed of as a little girl. The laughter, the good-natured teasing, the. . .

Her thoughts were interrupted by the steady chime of the door opening and closing and the sound of Lorenzo’s smooth voice with its exaggerated, lyrical accent, greeting the customers and her sisters, and Jenna reached back to unzip her wedding gown. She wasn’t comfortable leaving her fiancé alone without her to intercede if things went sideways like they so often did.

All she’d need was for Arianna and Lorenzo to get into a knock-out, drag-out fight before the wedding. They were both volatile and stubborn and mixed as well as oil and water. But the only sound she heard was Pachelbel’s Canon in D coming through the speakers. She was just about chide herself for worrying over nothing when she heard it. . . a feminine sob.

If Lorenzo had made Arianna cry, they would have words. She bowed her head. If Jenna had words with her fiancé, he’d probably cry too. He was a sensitive soul. She wouldn’t admit it to anyone else, but sometimes she found his proclivity to melodrama annoying. Then again, she’d much rather Lorenzo be a kind and sensitive—albeit dramatic—man rather than a brooding alpha.

In all her years in the matchmaking business, Jenna had met her fair share of alpha males. Like bad boys, they weren’t for her. She found them too masculine, domineering, and full of themselves. Admittedly, she was in the minority. Ninety percent of the women she matched wanted an alpha or bad boy. At least she’d saved herself the heartache and found Lorenzo, who was somewhere between a beta and a metrosexual.

As Jenna steeled herself to pull back the change room curtain and discover the identity of the crying person, there was the muffled ping of an incoming text. She found her iPhone buried beneath her clothes on the chair, releasing a relieved breath when she read the text from Serena. Her stepsister identified the crying woman as a bride who’d just been unceremoniously dumped ten days before her upcoming wedding. Her sisters were both busy, and Serena asked Jenna to provide a little TLC to the jilted bride until one of them could take over.

No problem, she texted back, happy for the opportunity to help out.

Jenna returned her phone to the pile of clothes and then pushed back the curtain. She spotted the woman right away. Half-buried beneath a garment bag, she sat slumped on a velvet slipper chair on the other side in the fitting area. Her veil was askew on her gorgeous updo, congealed streaks of black mascara and blush on her cheeks. She must have been having a trial run of her hair and makeup for the big day. Despite her heart breaking for the poor woman, Jenna pasted a warm, professional smile on her face.

“Here, why don’t you let me hang this up for you?” Without waiting for a response, she gently removed the garment bag from the woman’s arms. “I’m Jenna Bell, Arianna and Serena’s sister. Would you like a coffee or tea . . . How about a glass of prosecco?” Jenna asked as she returned from hanging up the gown in a fitting room.

“A bottle of prosecco would be good,” the woman said, her attempt at putting on a brave face failing when the words had barely left her mouth and she burst into tears.

Jenna gathered up a Champagne flute, the bottle of bubbly, and a box of tissues. She pulled a small table and chair closer to the woman and sat down. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked as she poured a glass.

The jilted bride hiccupped a sob while reaching for a tissue. “I don’t know what happened. I was just leaving the salon, and he called and said h-he couldn’t go through with the wedding. H-he blamed me. He said he never wanted to get married. He said I push . . .pushed him into it.”

Jenna put down the bottle to comfort her. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”

The woman lifted her head from Jenna’s shoulder to accept the tissues Jenna gently pressed into her hand. She blew her nose. “Sorry for crying all over your beautiful gown. My name’s Kimberly, and I’m not usually a crier, but . . .”

“Please, don’t apologize. I just wish there was something I could say that would make you feel better.” Jenna handed her more tissues. “I don’t know if this is helpful or not, but I own a matchmaking company in Charleston, and so many of my clients have been exactly where you are right now and they’ve gone on to find true love. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, Kimberly, but trust me, this might be the best thing to happen to you.”

“I can’t see how. He’s the love of my life.” Sniffing, she pulled out her phone to show Jenna pictures of her with her fiancé.

Jenna studied the couple in the photo. Her matchmaking company had a 90.9 percent success rate for a reason. And it didn’t have anything to do with her stepmother’s super secret computer program like Gwyneth liked to tell people.

Jenna had a gift.

She knew within moments of a couple sitting across from her if they were meant to be or not. A pretty pink light would dance between the couple, and Jenna would get a warm, fuzzy feeling deep down inside and be overcome by a sense of joy and well-being. Sometimes the feelings were so powerful she was sure the inner glow must show on her face. No one had ever said that it did though. And maybe because she didn’t have tangible proof, the few people who knew about her gift poo-pooed it. Including her stepmother. At least when it suited her. Which was why Southern Belles didn’t have a hundred percent success rate. Because when it came to true love and happily-ever-afters, Jenna was always, always right.

Except in this case the couple weren’t sitting across from her so she couldn’t be one hundred percent positive, but she felt eighty percent confident. “Kimberly, I’ve been doing this a long time, and trust me, he’s not your one and only. Give yourself a couple months to get in a better place and then give me a call, and I’ll help you find a man who is.”

“Really? You don’t think we were meant to be?”

“No. If you were, he wouldn’t have called off the wedding. A couple months from now, you might want to thank him. I know it’s hard to see this now, but what he did took courage, Kimberley.”

“Oh, bella, what you say, it is the truth. I am so glad you understand. I knew you would.”

Jenna glanced over her shoulder. She should probably be alarmed that her fiancé had just seen her in her wedding dress but she didn’t think her wedding could be cursed twice. Lorenzo had already seen her in the dress when he walked in on her during the fitting for his tux.

“I don’t know what you mean, Lorenzo. Understand what?”

The beatific expression on his too-handsome face dimmed, and his sensuous mouth turned down. “What you just told your friend. I must have the courage for the both of us.”

Jenna came slowly to her feet. “Are you. . . are you breaking up with me?”

Si. I have found my true love, and now I must set you free to find yours.”

This couldn’t be happening. She reached for the back of the chair in case her suddenly weak knees gave out. In the distance, she heard Arianna say something to Serena and then the click of high heels coming their way. Jenna knew she should continue the conversation someplace private, but there seemed to be a disconnect between her brain and her mouth. “Y-you told me I’m your true love.”

“I was mistaken. My heart, it belongs to Gwyneth.”

She practically fell off her heels and tightened her grip on the back of the chair. “Gwyneth? You’re in love with my stepmother?” Her heart was pounding so hard she could hear her pulse in her ears and wasn’t sure if she’d yelled or whispered the words. At the sound of high heels hitting the tiles at the rate of machine gunfire, she went with the former.

“Ah, you knew then. You should have told me, bella. It was not fair you kept me from my love for so long.”

“And I thought I was having a bad day.” Kimberly leaned over to hand Jenna the bottle of prosecco. “Either drink it or hit him with the bottle. Personally, I’d hit him. And no offense, but if you didn’t know he wasn’t your one, how am I supposed to trust you to know who’s mine?”

Emotion swelled in Jenna’s throat, making it impossible to respond. She’d never had the true-love feeling with any of her boyfriends, Lorenzo included. Psychics were the same. Their gift was for other people, not themselves.

But Jenna couldn’t find the energy to defend her abilities. Gwyneth had stolen everything from her now. The woman she’d spent the last decade trying to mollify and please had just sunk a 16-inch serrated knife in Jenna’s chest and tore out her heart. And there she stood with the blood draining from her body and her knees about to give out and the man she thought loved her, her very own prince charming, was watching her with a perturbed expression on his face because she’d kept him from her forty-five-year-old stepmother.

She glanced at the bottle in her hand, the temptation to hit him over the head and replace his aggravation with shock and pain was hard to resist. Arianna wouldn’t hesitate, and neither would Serena. But Jenna couldn’t bring herself to do it and handed the bottle back to Kimberly. “I can’t drink and drive.” She forced the words past her quivering lips, and rapidly blinked her burning eyes. She had to get out of there before she broke down. All she had left was her dignity.

“I’ll be right back. I need to put more money in the parking meter.” She lifted her skirts and ran past a confused looking Lorenzo and her wide-eyed sisters. She ran to the front of the shop and out the front door. It wasn’t until she was about to run across the street to her car that she realized she was still in her wedding gown and didn’t have her keys. A deep voice cut through the fog of her grief.

“Hey, Cinderella, you lost your shoe.”

She registered her lopsided gait and the warm pavement beneath her foot and stopped. She turned. And there, bathed in June’s golden light, stood a tall, dark-haired man with her glass shoe resting on the palm of his hand.