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Authors: Barbara Valentin

False Start

 

 

 

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FALSE START

 

by

 

BARBARA VALENTIN

 

 

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Copyright © 2014 by Barbara Valentin

Cover design by Estrella Cover Art

Gemma Halliday Publishing

http://www.gemmahallidaypublishing.com

 

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

 

To my husband, who taught me that running down a dream is a marathon, not a sprint.

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PROLOGUE

 

"My weaknesses have always been food and men—in that order."

– Dolly Parton

 

Of all the things to say to a bride-to-be on her wedding day, "You have no business wearing that skinny minidress with your full figure, and in a church!" isn't one of them.

But Mattie had other things to worry about besides her Aunt Viv's chiding. The ceremony was scheduled to start in two minutes, and the church, overflowing with three shades of fragrant peonies and more than a hundred well-adorned guests, was missing just one thing. The groom.

"I'm sure he'll be here any minute," Claudia, the matron of honor, promised with all of the sincerity of a used-car salesman.

Claudia never did like Eddie. When she learned the object of her baby sister's lifelong, one-sided crush had finally balled up and proposed, she made every attempt to hide her disdain. Almost.

"All people can be divided into two groups, Mattie—givers and takers. You are a giver. Eddie is a taker." Claudia said this so frequently, Mattie expected to see it cross-stitched on a pillow as a wedding gift.

Maybe she was right. Against Eddie's smoldering good looks and irresistible charm Mattie's better judgment abandoned her. Even now, with her stomach in knots, she still made excuses for him.

"Maybe he overslept and had a flat tire on his way to the church. And he forgot to charge his cell phone. And he's having another one of his migraines. And, and, and…"

Claudia rolled her eyes. "Whatever."

The dimly lit storage closet-turned-bridal-room at St. Matthias church felt claustrophobic even in the best of circumstances. Unable to pace back and forth to ease her anxiety, Mattie snuck a frantic peek into the church. Her wide-set eyes swept the pews like a pair of heat-guided missiles seeking their target, scanning the area in front of the altar where Father Bennet stood waiting. At his side was the one element of the wedding to which Mattie did not agree. In fact, she vehemently protested but to no avail.

Nick DeRosa. Why Eddie chose his estranged twin brother over any of his esteemed colleagues at his LaSalle Street investment firm, she had no idea. The awkwardness of their greeting the night before was matched only by its impropriety. Mistaking him for Eddie, Mattie had pulled his face down to hers and, with all of the exuberance of a jubilant bride-to-be, planted a passionate kiss on his surprised lips.

That he had the same chiseled Mediterranean features and wore his chestnut-colored locks in the same style as his brother's was hardly her fault.

That he kissed her back was his.

Hours later, as she was leaving the rehearsal dinner, Nick managed to confirm, if not worsen, the bride-to-be's opinion of him when she overheard him ask Eddie, "Why do you want to marry somebody like Mattie?"

Somebody like Mattie.

Taken out of context, that question could be twisted any number of malicious ways, and twist it Mattie did. But, given that she was less than a day away from becoming Mrs. Eduardo DeRosa, co-owner of a custom-built Gold Coast penthouse and a cherry red Ferrari, she simply added the insult to the already long list of offenses Nick had incurred against her over the years and filed it away for future reference.

Squinting at the spot in which the groom was supposed to be standing, Mattie discovered her veil did little to obscure the obvious. Eddie was indeed missing. She stared so long and so hard, hoping to will him into existence, that Nick frowned at her, glanced behind him, and delivered an awkward wave.

Oh, puh-leeze
. How he could possibly share the same DNA as his brother was beyond Mattie's comprehension.

"It's 2:15." Claudia's voice slapped her back to the present.

"I'm sure he'll be here any minute," Mattie heard herself say. But this time, even she didn't believe it.

She turned her gaze to the window, panic welling up inside of her. Seeing the black limousine parked at the curb decked out with ribbons, more flowers, and a professionally hand-painted "Just Married" sign affixed to the back bumper, she whispered, "I don't understand."

She was so thrilled when Eddie proposed that she offered to take care of everything, right down to the color of the bowties he and the groomsmen would wear. Figuring her bills would become their bills post-nuptials, she adopted Eddie's own mantra of "only the best" when selecting the flowers, the photographer, and the Drake Hotel for their reception.

Curiously, the honeymoon was the only thing Eddie insisted on handling. He wouldn't even tell her where they were going.

Claudia gripped Mattie by her bare shoulders. "Nobody can get hold of him. He's not coming, honey. I'll go tell Father Bennet. Wait here." Before leaving, she took her sister's chin in her hand and asked, "You OK?"

Mattie nodded. When she heard the door click shut behind her, she turned and faced her reflection in the full-length mirror. She had starved herself for weeks to fit into the Vera Wang gown she had dreamed of wearing before Eddie even slipped the two-carat diamond on her finger. Despite the weeks of deprivation, it took only a few seconds to convince herself that her Aunt Viv was right
she looked like a sausage stuffed into a casing of silk taffeta and hand-sewn mother-of-pearl beading. The singsong rhythm of cruel childhood taunting echoed in her ears.

Fatty Mattie, Fatty Mattie, Fatty Mattie…

The more she stared, the more her chin and lower lip started to quiver. She closed her eyes and tried to make the nightmare disappear.

It was 2:33. She stood there frozen, waiting for Claudia. In the stillness of the unventilated room, filled with hymnals, vestments, and choir robes, there was nothing left for her to do but let the truth sink in. Eddie didn't oversleep, get the time wrong, or have a flat tire on his way to the church.

He had stood her up.

An uncharacteristic darkness settled over her as she envisioned him writhing in pain from one of his debilitating migraines. She was surprised and somewhat disturbed by how much the image lifted her spirits.

As Mattie stood transfixed, the corset underneath her gown started constricting around her midsection like a lace-covered python. Her head began to swirl. Questions started racing through her mind. How could she have misread the cues? Was she that desperate? A combustible mix of despair and fury began to well up inside of her.

Where's Claudia?

She needed her help to get out of her gown, out of the church, and out of this nightmare.

Almost on cue, Mattie heard the door open behind her, but it was a male voice that spoke her name in a low, apologetic tone. "Mat-"

As she delivered a two-carat-weighted left hook to his perfect chin, she felt the fifteen silk-covered buttons holding her bodice together pop with the force of champagne corks.

"Take that you son of a
"

She took a step back. With buttons ricocheting off the walls, the windows, and the mirror, she wondered aloud, "Why aren't you wearing the white bowtie?"

CHAPTER ONE

 

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

– Virginia Woolf

 

"Come on you hunk of junk. I'm on deadline."

When she worked at the
Wall Street Journal
, Mattie Ross, investigative reporter extraordinaire, took for granted that she had the latest technology at her disposal. But here, under the flickering lights of the
Chicago Gazette's
newsroom, she sat waiting for her dated laptop to show signs of life. As she glared at the screen, the fingers of her left hand undressed a large bar of imported Swiss chocolate. To her right, a small vat of coffee emitted wisps of caffeinated steam. She blew over the rim and took a sip just as the future museum exhibit prompted her to log on. It was Monday morning, and
The Plate Spinner,
one of the
Gazette's
most popular features, was on the clock.

Letting the hot liquid warm her mouth before it slid down her throat, she opened her pseudonym's inbox. At least a dozen emails had arrived overnight. Some were from fans of the seemingly perfect working parent and multi-tasking guru. Some were from harried working parents, asking for advice. Some were from loyal readers either complaining about or complimenting her on advice given in previous columns.

Mattie loathed them all.

Unlike Carlotta Crenshaw, the original author of
The Plate Spinner
column, she was not married, did not have kids and couldn't multi-task her way out of a paper bag. On the contrary. She had sworn off men, was drowning in debt, and routinely tested the limits of the American Heart Association's guidelines on red wine and dark chocolate consumption.

If only Eddie DeRosa hadn't re-entered her life when he did. She was on the cusp of fulfilling her dream to become one of the top journalists at the iconic financial news publication. When the Chicago bureau chief assigned her the task of flushing out allegations of shady transactions at Chicago's oldest investment firm, she could almost feel the Pulitzer Prize gold medal in her hands.

But that all changed the minute she stepped foot in the firm's swanky offices high atop the corner of LaSalle and Monroe to begin her investigation. Eddie greeted her personally with a warm hug. Having not heard from him since college, he was the last person she expected to see. What didn't surprise her was that he still had the power to melt her steely resolve faster than a stick of butter in a hot frying pan.

While writing a searing expose on Eddie's well-calculated crimes would have gone a long way towards exacting revenge on the man who left her at the altar after six of the happiest months of her life, by the time she had come to her senses, he was long gone, and she was out of a job.

Never again.

Mattie snapped off a hunk of the exquisitely smooth chocolate and shoved it in her mouth.

Stuck with a mountain of wedding-induced debt, she knew she was lucky to find another job so quickly. Even if it meant filling someone else's place on the lowest rung of the journalism ladder
an advice column. Turns out, her decision to keep her two-carat Tiffany wedding set wasn't such a bad one after all.

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