A Will, a Way, and a Wedding

by Melody Carlson

As Daphne begins making reluctant plans to let Aunt Dee’s house and life go and pick up the pieces of her fractured life, the guy she’s been dreaming about begins to change his tune. Of course, another huge obstacle pops up at about the same time, threatening to ruin what might finally be true love. Meanwhile, she continues writing the advice column, learning more about love and commitment than she ever thought possible. But will she cinch the deal in time?

Chapter 1

On the morning of her thirty-fifth birthday, Daphne Ballinger found herself staring into the bathroom mirror with a mixture of fascination and deep anxiety. Searching her face for any trace of wrinkles, she vaguely wondered if she was about to be attacked by a terrorist. Oh, she knew that she was being melodramatic, not to mention ridiculous, but that silly quote about a single thirty-five-year-old woman’s pathetic odds of marriage was unsettling. But, then again, what was the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Appleton?

“` doing?” Mabel asked from behind her.

Daphne turned to see the eight-year-old, still in her rumpled Hello Kitty pajamas, blinking up with sleepy brown eyes.

“Nothing much.” Daphne smiled down at her. “Just trying to see if I look any older today.”

Mabel’s brow creased as she studied Daphne more closely. “Nope. You still look just the same as yesterday.”

Daphne tousled her fingers through Mabel’s chestnut hair, making her short pixie haircut resemble a punk-rocker. “Good to know, sweetie.”

“Oh, yeah!” Mabel’s eyes opened wide. “It’s your birthday, Aunt Daphne! I almost forgot. Happy birthday!” She threw her arms around Daphne’s waist, hugging her tightly as she sang the Happy Birthday song with gusto.

“Thank you, Mabel.” Daphne hugged her back. Really, no birthday present could be better than her new role as Mabel’s guardian. That was truly the gift that would keep on giving.

“Wait!” Mabel released her. “I got a birthday present for you—I almost forgot.” And then she dashed off, her bare feet pattering across the hardwood floor.

Daphne bent down to pet the two cats who were now rubbing against her legs, purring loudly. “Yes, I’m sure you girls are here to tell me happy birthday too,” she said wryly. “Unless you’re just begging for breakfast.” Of course, it was the latter. “Come on, girls.”

As Daphne led Ethel and Lucy from the master bedroom, Mabel came bounding down the stairs. “Here it is!” She proudly held out a lumpy looking package wrapped in red and green Christmas paper and with a pale pink satin ribbon wrapped loosely around it. “Open it! Open it now!”

“I can’t wait.” Daphne took the gift from her. “I wonder what it could be.”

“I made it myself,” Mabel declared. “With a little bit of help from Aunt Sabrina.”

Daphne slowly peeled off the outer layer of paper and more layers of crumpled pink tissue paper until she finally uncovered an oversized mug. Painted and glazed with colorful stripes and hearts and flowers, it declared Mabel Loves Daphne in bold rainbow colored letters. “It’s beautiful!” Daphne hugged Mabel. “Thank you so much!”

“Sabrina took me to The Potting Shed,” Mabel explained. “It’s a new store in town where you make all kinds of stuff. At first this mug was all plain and white and boring, but then I got to paint it.” Her mouth twisted to one side. “It didn’t look real pretty when I got done, but the lady there told me it would look better after it got cooked up. She put it in her big oven after we left and when we went back a few days later it looked like this.”

“I love it.” Daphne held up the bright cup. “I’m going to use it for coffee this morning.”

“Yes!”

“I’ll go start the coffee and feed the cats.” Daphne pointed at Mabel’s bare feet. “And you get on your slippers. It’s chilly in here.”

“Shouldn’t I get dressed for school?”

“Today’s Saturday.”

“Oh, yeah!” Mabel let out a happy whoop as she raced back up the stairs. “Lola and I are going skateboarding this morning.”

With Lucy and Ethel fed, Daphne started a pot of coffee. As the aroma of the freshly ground beans drifted through the old fashioned kitchen, she told herself that she had a lot to be thankful for on this milestone birthday. And to obsess over the stupid quote she’d read a few weeks ago was totally ludicrous. Thirty-five was not that old!

“Hello? Y’all here?” A sweet southern voice hailed the house. “Anybody home?”

“Come in,” Daphne called out. “I’m in the kitchen.”

Sabrina Fontaine, her petite blonde neighbor, entered the kitchen with a large baking pan in her hands. “Happy birthday!” she chirped. “Hot cinnamon rolls to celebrate your big day.”

“Yum!” Daphne sniffed the gooey confections. “I just put on the coffee.”

Sabrina set the hot pan on top of the stove, pointing to the colorful mug. “Looks like Mabel already gave you her gift.”

“Isn’t it sweet?”

Sabrina nodded. “You have to wait for my gift.” And now she explained how she’d made appointments for both of them. “Two o’clock. For mani-pedis and facials,” she said cheerfully. “And then we’ll do a little shopping for something special—for your big date with Jake tonight.”

“And Jenna’s coming to stay with me while you’re with Sabrina,” Mabel announced as she shuffled into the kitchen with her fluffy pink slippers. “Jenna promised to help me finish up my valentines today.”

“That’s right.” Sabrina cut into the cinnamon rolls, setting them on a platter. “Valentine’s Day is Tuesday. That’s coming up real quick.”

“And Mabel’s only half done with her special homemade valentines.” Daphne silently blessed Jenna as she poured coffee. Mabel’s idea to hand craft all those valentines was very sweet, but each one took so long to make…Daphne had been worried that Mabel might not get them done by Tuesday.

“What time is your date with Jake?” Sabrina asked as she sat the rolls on the little plastic-topped kitchen table straight out of the forties.

“He’s picking her up at six-thirty,” Mabel said importantly as she flopped into a chrome and vinyl chair. “They’re going to The Zeppelin.”

“And Jenna’s going to baby-sit tonight too?” Sabrina asked Daphne as she sat down. “Because I could always cancel my date with Ricardo if you needed me to—”

“Jake said it was all set with Jenna.” Daphne set down Sabrina’s coffee and a glass of milk for Mabel.

“Yay!” Mabel made a victorious fist pump. “I get to have Jenna today and tonight.”

“Thank goodness for Jenna.” Daphne set a bowl of last night’s fruit salad and some small dishes on the table and smiled. “This looks like the perfect birthday breakfast.” Daphne sat down. “Thanks for the cinnamon rolls, Sabrina.”

“I’ll say the blessing,” Mabel offered eagerly.

They bowed their heads, waiting as Mabel said a short grateful prayer and a hearty amen.

“Speaking of Jenna, did you hear the latest news about her step-daddy?” Sabrina’s brows arched mysteriously as she looked at Daphne.

“No.” Daphne shook her head. She didn’t really know that much about Frank Danson. Except that he was quite wealthy and that he’d recently married Jake’s ex-wife—and that Jenna seemed to like her new stepfather, which was a relief. “What’s up?”

Sabrina glanced at Mabel then shrugged. “Oh, nothing really.” It sounded like she was backpedaling. “I, uh, I think he’s going to open up a new business or something.” As Mabel dished out some fruit salad, Sabrina tossed Daphne a tell-you-later look.

“These rolls are delicious,” Daphne told Sabrina, now curious as to what her friend was keeping to herself.

The three of them made cheerful small talk about their favorite birthday memories. Of course, Mabel’s favorite birthday was the one she’d had before Christmas. “That was the best birthday party ever!” She beamed up at Daphne. “You wanna have a party like that too?”

“No thanks,” Daphne told her. “I like small, quiet celebrations like this better.”

 Before long Mabel was finished and trotting off to get dressed in the anticipation of skateboarding around the neighborhood with Lola. But as soon as she was out of earshot, Daphne inquired about Frank Danson. “Why are you being so mysterious?”

“Sorry, I didn’t think before I spoke. I shouldn’t have said a word in front of Mabel.”

“Why not?”

“Because I know how she adores Jenna—and it’s possible that Jenna will have to move.”

“Move?” Daphne felt a wave of concern. “Why?”

“It sounds like Frank has acquired a large real estate firm in Miami and plans to relocate there.”

“Miami?” Daphne frowned.

“Yeah. That’s what Ricardo told me yesterday.”

“Do you really think he’ll move Jenna and Gwen there? I can’t imagine that Jenna would want to leave her school and her friends…not to mention her dad.”

“I don’t know, but I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mabel. She’ll be devastated.”

“Jake will be devastated too.” Daphne solemnly shook her head.

“Maybe it’s just a silly rumor,” Sabrina suggested. “You know how people love to gossip in this town. And Ricardo catches bits and pieces at the diner. I’ll bet it’s not even true.”

“I sure hope you’re right.”

“Anyway, I won’t mention it to Mabel.”

“Thank you.” Daphne sipped her coffee. Mabel would certainly be saddened by this news, but what about poor Jake? Miami was a long way from Appleton. He would be lost if his sixteen-year-old daughter moved that far away. And Daphne knew that Jenna was the reason Jake had kept his law practice in this small town for all these years. Especially when he knew he could work in much larger cities.

“I wonder if Jake knows…?” Sabrina said absently.

“If he does know, he hasn’t mentioned it to me. But he was away on that business trip last week.” Daphne frowned. If the rumor was true and if Jake had heard about it, it would put a definite damper on their evening. And she wouldn’t even blame him for feeling blue.

“I’m sorry,” Sabrina said suddenly. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it to you. I can see it’s making you unhappy. Please, don’t think about it anymore. It’s probably just a small town rumor.”

“Yes, I’m sure it is. I don’t know Jake’s ex that well, but I know Gwen loves Jenna. I can’t imagine she’d agree to uproot her from high school and her friends…and her dad.”

“You’re right.” Sabrina got up, carrying her dishes to the sink. “So…I’ll pick you up a little before two, okay?”

Daphne forced a smile. She knew how much Sabrina loved being pampered in a fancy spa, but the truth was Daphne could take it or leave it. Still, she wanted to be a good sport—especially since it was all arranged.

“It’ll be fun,” Sabrina assured her as if reading Daphne’s doubtful thoughts. “And when we’re done, you’ll feel like a new woman, Daph. Trust me.”

Daphne patted her petite friend’s shoulder. “You know that I trust you, Sabrina. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. Thank you for setting it up.”

Yet as Sabrina left, Daphne wasn’t so sure she could trust her good friend. More specifically, she didn’t want to trust her—at least not in regard to the rumor she’d just shared. Because if Frank and Gwen were truly moving Jenna to Miami, Jake McPheeters would have no reason to remain in Appleton. And Daphne wasn’t sure that she was ready to tell him goodbye.

Chapter 2

By the time Jenna was dropped off by her mom, Daphne had pushed her worries about Miami into the back of her mind. And since Jenna looked as happy and chipper as ever, Daphne felt certain it was just a rumor.

“Mabel is so thrilled that you’re babysitting her both today and then again tonight—she’s nearly beside herself.” Daphne led Jenna inside.

“Happy birthday.” Jenna handed Daphne a large yellow envelope then peeled off her parka. “Sabrina told me.”

“Thank you.” As Daphne took her coat, she mentioned Mabel’s valentine project.

“Mabel already told me about it. Sounds like fun.” Jenna unwound a colorful scarf from around her neck. “I haven’t made old fashioned valentines in ages. I might even make some for my friends too.”

Jenna—Jenna—Jenna!” Mabel sang out as she raced down the stairs “You’re here at last.

“Sabrina said to come at 1:45.” Jenna grinned at her. “And I’m five minutes early.”

“But I’ve been waiting for you forever!” Mabel grabbed Jenna by the hand. “Come to the kitchen—my valentine making stuff is all in there and I really need your help!”

“How does it feel to be so needed?” Daphne asked as she hung up Jenna’s coat.

“Kinda nice.” Jenna laughed as Mabel eagerly tugged her along.

Daphne opened the envelope, slipping out a pretty card with a picture of sunflowers on it, and taking her time to read the sweet message. “Thank you for the card, Jenna,” she said as she joined them in the kitchen.

“You’re welcome.”

Daphne spotted Sabrina through the kitchen window. She was putting something in her car. “Looks like Sabrina’s almost ready to go.” Daphne grabbed her jacket from the hook by the laundry room. “You’ve got my cell number, Jenna. And the other numbers on the fridge.”

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Jenna said. “Have fun!”

Despite her reservations, Daphne hoped it would be fun—or at least tolerable. As she hurried out to Sabrina’s car, she had a flashback to the time she’d had a seaweed facial in New York and ended up looking like something from a horror film. Who knew she had an allergy to algae?

“Y’all ready to get beautified?” Sabrina asked as Daphne got into her car.

“I guess so.” Daphne smiled uneasily then pointed at Sabrina’s doggy carrier in the backseat. “Tootsie’s going to the spa too?”

“I just didn’t want to leave him home alone all afternoon. Especially since I’ll be gone tonight too.” Sabrina backed out into the street. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all.” Daphne was used to Tootsie by now. Even his little pink tutu didn’t bother her anymore—although he had on a bright red sweater today.

“The spa lady said it was all right—especially since I’m such a regular customer there. And I promised her that Tootsie wouldn’t make a ruckus or run hog wild.” Sabrina laughed. “As if I’d let him. But you know how spa folks are. They want to keep the place calm and quiet. Can’t blame ’em for that.”

“I must admit I’m a little wary about the spa.” Daphne explained about her seaweed allergy several years ago. “I don’t want to look like the creature from the Black Lagoon for my date tonight.”

Sabrina laughed. “Don’t you worry, I’ll tell them you’re extra sensitive, and make sure that they use the gentlest of products on you. When we’re done, you’ll be pretty as a picture or I’ll throw a sweet little hissy fit.”

“Well, I don’t want you to—”

“No fretting, Daphne. This is your day.” Sabrina glanced at her. “And I’m not surprised you’ve got sensitive skin, honey. All that naturally red hair and your peaches and cream complexion, it’s no wonder. Don’t worry, they’ll treat you right or we’ll know the reason why.”

Daphne couldn’t help but chuckle at her small southern friend. Sabrina was unlike anyone Daphne had ever known and, in many ways, Daphne’s exact opposite. Where Daphne was tall and often felt awkward, Sabrina was short and spirited. And where Daphne was somewhat shy and insecure, as well as fashion-challenged, Sabrina was bold and confident and something of a style diva. Despite their many differences, Daphne felt thankful for the unexpected friendship and she knew that, where it mattered, she and Sabrina were actually a lot alike.

“Did Jenna mention anything about moving to Miami?” Sabrina asked as they were getting out of her car to go into the day spa.

“No. And she seemed like her usual cheerful self.” Daphne reached for her purse.

“I’ll bet it was just idle gossip,” Sabrina said as she got Tootsie’s carrier out. “Wish I’d never mentioned it now.”

“We’ll just forget about it then.” Daphne sighed. “And we won’t repeat it to anyone.”

“You got that right.” Sabrina led the way to the front door of the charming old building. “Now—let the fun begin!”

After a couple hours of surprisingly delicate pampering, Daphne really did feel prettier. Not to mention more relaxed. And all without the slightest reaction.

“Thank you so much,” she told Sabrina as they waited in the parking lot for Tootsie to do his business along the curbside strip of grass. Daphne examined her nails, which were painted a soft luminescent shell pink. At least she wouldn’t ruin them gardening since it was only mid-February.

“I’m so glad you like it, Daph. You look like a million bucks with the cosmetics that gal put on you. I really should take your picture while you’re trying on clothes.” As Sabrina extracted a hot pink doggie-do baggie from her purse, Daphne tried to think of a gentle way to put the brakes on this intended shopping expedition. She simply did not need any new clothes—she could easily wear one of the dresses she’d worn at Christmastime. But how to tell Sabrina?

“Good boy,” Sabrina told Tootsie as she stooped over, deftly picking up after him.

“The time at the spa was so great,” Daphne began cautiously, “I just don’t want you to feel you still need to take me shopping, because I have plenty of—”

“You are not going to deprive me of the best part of my day, are you?” Sabrina waved her pink parcel in the air before dropping into the nearby trash can. “You know how much I love to shop. And I already found the perfect place to get you something really special. Please, do not tell me you want to quit now.” She produced a small bottle of rose-scented hand-sanitizer, giving herself a generous squirt and vigorously rubbing her palms together.

“Okay—okay.” Daphne shook her head. “Show me what you found.”

“There’s this new shop right here in Appleton,” Sabrina explained as they got into her car. “I met the lady who owns it. She’s from Germany, and I swear she could pass for Heidi Klum’s older sister. Her name is Erika Schwartz. And she was so disappointed not to open her business before Christmas, but she just couldn’t get everything ready in time. Anyway, it’s called The Chic Boutique—isn’t that cute? And I feel we should do our part to make her feel welcome—and to support local businesses.”

“I’ve seen that shop. Looks like they fixed it up really nice, but I haven’t been in there yet.”

“Well, I promised Erika I’d bring you shopping there for your birthday today. She’s expecting us.”

As soon as they walked in the door of the shop, with Tootsie still wearing his little red sweater and now on a leash, Erika greeted all three of them like dear old friends. “Velcome, velcome,” she said with a thick accent. “Thank you so much for coming to Chic Boutique.”

And suddenly, like being caught in a whirlwind, Daphne was being shown dresses and skirts and tops and all sorts of things—most of which she wouldn’t want to be caught dead in. But with an armload of garments, she was shown to a hanging chamber made of colorful curtains. And then both Erika and Sabrina took turns shoving various items at her. As the swaying dressing room moved from side to side, Daphne could almost feel her head spinning. She honestly did not understand how so many women, particularly Sabrina, found shopping fun. To Daphne, it was just plain old hard work.

“I know you’re trying to help,” Daphne said as she modeled a dress with far too many details. “But you need to remember, I like more classic styles.”

“She means plain clothes,” Sabrina told Erika.

“Classic.” Erika nodded at Daphne. “I understand vat you mean.”

“But you’re so dramatic looking,” Sabrina protested. “All that beautiful auburn hair and your height. You could be so flamboyant.”

“You are right, Sabrina,” Erika said quietly as Daphne returned to the swaying chamber. “Your friend is tall like fashion model. She vill look good in anything.”

“That’s the problem,” Sabrina said in a hushed tone. “She will wear almost anything.”

“Oh?” Erika sounded confused. “That’s not good?”

“Yes, I guess it is. But we want to make her look very beautiful for tonight,” Sabrina said. “Not only for her birthday, but she has a big date too.”

Big date?”

“You know…she’s having dinner with a man.” Sabrina chuckled. “A very handsome man.”

“Oh, dat’s goot. Ve vill make her even more beautiful.”

It was close to five o’clock when they all agreed that a cream colored cable-knit dress with a wide leather belt meant to be worn low on her hips was perfect. “It looked so boring on the hanger, but it really does look good on you.” Sabrina conceded as she snapped some pictures with her phone.

“It shows off her figure,” Erika said with a pleased nod. “Good for big date.”

Daphne felt her cheeks warming and nearly pulled the plug on the dress but knew that would mean trying on more clothes. Instead she returned to the swaying chamber and, eager to be done with this, handed it over to Sabrina.

“And you want the belt too?” Erika asked hopefully.

“Absolutely. And those suede pumps too,” Sabrina declared.

“No,” Daphne called out as she pulled on her jeans. “I’ve got some boots that will look great with that dress. They’re the same color as the belt too.”

“Oh, yes,” Erika agreed. “Boots vould be goot with this dress. Daphne is right.”

Relieved that Sabrina was talked out of purchasing the shoes they’d insisted she try on with the dress, Daphne hurried to change into her own clothes then pretended to browse the racks while Sabrina and Erika handled the purchase.

“Happy birthday!” Sabrina declared as she handed Daphne the garment bag.

“You’re too generous.” Daphne called out goodbye to Erika as she held the shop door open for Sabrina and Tootsie.

“The truth is I have ulterior motives,” Sabrina confessed as they went out to the car.

“What do you mean?” Daphne asked.

“I don’t want to lose you,” Sabrina confessed. “I want you to marry Jake and then you and Mabel will remain across the street from me—and we will all happily grow old together.”

Daphne laughed. “Well, at least you’re being honest about it. And, for the record, it sounds good to me too.”

“You know, I’ve been giving this whole thing a lot of thought lately, Daphne.” Sabrina started her car. “For a while I was really miffed at your grandmother for the way she wrote out her will. I mean, it just seemed wrong and selfish for her to insist you must get married in order to inherit her estate. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand. She simply wanted to ensure that you were happy.”

“You mean happily married.” Daphne frowned. “And yet she never chose to marry herself. Doesn’t that seem a bit ironic?”

“Yes. But it just proves that she understood what it felt like to grow old alone. Even with her big house and beautiful car and those two cats, I suspect she was lonely. And I’m sure she didn’t want the same for you.”

“But what if the stipulations in her will tempted me to marry the wrong man? Out of plain desperation? How could that make me happy?”

“Your grandmother must’ve known you were far too sensible to do something foolish like that. Not to mention you’re too honest. No, Daphne, the old darling trusted you to make the right decision. That’s why she wrote it out the way she did. It was for your own good.”

Daphne sighed. “Well, I’ve actually had similar thoughts, Sabrina. Still, it sure hasn’t been easy. And seeing the months of the calendar turning over is unsettling. You know I have less than three months now.”

“Believe me, I know. But here’s what I’m thinking, Daph. It’s sort of like I’m an ambassador.”

“An ambassador?”

 “You know, like a diplomat or delegate. I’m representing your grandmother. I like to think that old Daphne Delacorte or Daphne Ballinger or Penelope Poindexter—whatever handle she went by back then—anyway, I like to imagine that she sort of selected me to help you. Sort of like your fairy godmother.” Sabrina laughed. “I know it sounds silly.”

“Well, you make a sweet fairy godmother.” Daphne chuckled, envisioning Sabrina in a fairy godmother costume, complete with sparkling wand and tiara—oddly enough it wasn’t hard to imagine.

“Anyway, I don’t mind helping you. Not one bit.” Sabrina made a loud sigh. “I just hope we’re not wasting our time on Jake.” Sabrina parked her car in her own driveway. “I’d hate to be barking up the wrong tree. Especially when time is precious.”

“What do you mean?” Daphne turned to peer at her. “I thought you liked Jake.”

“I do like Jake.” Sabrina’s forehead creased. “But I’m worried that rumor is true—that Frank really does plan to move Gwen and Jenna to Florida.” She bit her lip as if she didn’t want to say more.

“But you said earlier that you didn’t think—”

“The truth is—I texted Ricardo while you were having your facial, Daphne.”

“And…?”

“He confirmed that it’s true. Frank told him himself. Straight from the horse’s mouth.”

“Oh….” Daphne felt her spirits plummeting.

“So—since I’m playing fairy godmother—I want to give you some advice.” Sabrina looked at her with sincere blue eyes.

“And that would be?”

“Guard your heart, my friend.”

Daphne just nodded.

“We all know how much Jake loves his daughter—and that he could easily relocate his law firm to just about anywhere.”

“Including Miami,” Daphne said quietly.

“So keep that in mind,” Sabrina said soberly. “Don’t let yourself fall into something that will ultimately hurt you.”

Daphne nodded. “I will keep that in mind, Sabrina.”

“Sorry to be such a wet blanket on your birthday.” Sabrina’s lower lip protruded ever so slightly. “But I just want the best for you.” She reached over to squeeze Daphne’s hand. “I considered not telling you that it was true. But it didn’t seem right to keep it a secret.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that.” Daphne managed only a stiff smile. “And don’t worry about me, it’s still been a great day. And I’m sure that dinner with Jake will be pleasant and fun. We’ve been friends for a while. I’ll just enjoy his company. And I’ll guard my heart too.”

“Good for you.”

They both got out of the car then Sabrina rushed over to hug Daphne. “Happy birthday, honey.” Daphne thanked her again and, with her new birthday dress in hand, hurried across the street to her house. But as she went up the walk, where the tulips were just starting to open and bloom, she wondered if this would still be her house by her next birthday. And if it weren’t, where would she be—what would she do and how would she take care of Mabel?

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