The plan was to get through the weddings… not fall in love!


As happy as he was for his three brothers, Ryan Sinclair was going to be even happier when their weddings were over. But that was still five months away.

He had been more than a little horrified when he’d received the group email months before from Devon Tremont, the woman the brides hired as a wedding planner, asking for his availability so these “Attendants” Zoom calls could be scheduled. It was a way to get those involved in the weddings together to make certain efforts weren’t being duplicated, people were available for pre-event happenings, and everyone was where they needed to be when they needed to be there. Ryan found them a little ridiculous, but if it made his future sisters-in-law happy, he’d do it.

Can’t I just show up, smile, and take pictures, Ryan suggested, when he messaged his brothers after hearing about the calls. They’d started a group text conversation years before to make communication easier after his father’s heart attack. Tell me what to wear and where to be, and I’m set.

Sorry, little brother, Cole had texted back. From everything I’m hearing, there are too many moving parts.

Ryan was glad none of his brothers could see the scowl on his face when he read the reply. Fortunately, these calls would be done for a while after tonight, since the first wedding event was less than two weeks away.

He was thrilled his brothers had found love — or refound it, since somehow they’d all ended up with their first loves — but he knew the celebrations were going to come with more than a few uncomfortable moments. And more than a few of those would be courtesy of his mother.

When they’d asked him to be their photographer, he’d said yes instantly. He’d gotten his first digital camera when he was nine and spent as much time as possible with one ever since, both professionally and personally. Since graduating from community college — and leaving Fable Notch — and especially since getting his agent two years ago, he’d been able to make a very comfortable living as a freelance photographer. The more time he could be behind the lens while he was in town, the better.

But first, he had to get through one last Zoom call.

Ryan sat in front of his laptop, staring at the familiar faces from his childhood and some of the most important people in his life. They didn’t always have all three grooms on the call, but tonight, with Theo and Eden’s May wedding less than two weeks away, everyone was here. And two days from now, Ryan would be arriving in Fable Notch for the first time in over three years.

He tried to stay focused on the call, but his mind kept wandering. The weddings themselves would be fun, and he was looking forward to seeing friends and family, especially some he hadn’t seen in decades, like Dani’s brother. On the flip side, as soon as he arrived, he’d be directly in the path of his mother’s meddling. Ever since Theo moved back to Fable Notch — followed soon after by Nick and Cole — she’d been dropping less than subtle hints about his settling down and moving home. Ryan had no interest in either.

If he had his way, he would fly in, take pictures, party a bit, and then leave. A few months earlier, he’d been on a video call with Cole, Theo, and Nick, who told him he would have to be the best man for all of them so they wouldn’t have to choose between one another. He’d thought they were serious and was genuinely panicked for a few seconds until they burst out laughing.

“Oh man, I wish I’d taken a picture of your face,” Nick said. “You looked horrified.”

“Fuck you,” he’d responded, relieved. Oh, the joys of older brothers. He considered the Hansons as his brothers, and they were in every way, except biologically.

Ryan would never forget the day his father, Martin, Fable Notch’s fire chief, came home with three local boys. They’d accidentally set fire to the shed in their yard. At the time, Ryan was eight and too young to understand what was going on with the Hanson family, only that their father was gone and their mother wasn’t around the way his was. As the months passed, they came around more often. It didn’t take long before they were family.

Ryan would do anything for his brothers. Even go back to Fable Notch three times in the space of five months. Fortunately, since he was his own boss, he could manage his schedule so the extra travel wasn’t a problem. Taking photos was his gift to them, although for two of the weddings he would turn the camera over to Devon during the ceremony, since he’d be standing at the altar with the bride and groom. He made a mental note to take some time with her to explain angles and sunlight so she’d get the shots he wanted.

“I think everyone has what they need for the next week, right?” Devon asked, and there were murmurs of agreement.

He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but these calls hadn’t been as terrible as he’d originally feared. As much as he’d been dreading them, they had given him the opportunity to reconnect with some familiar faces.

“Can’t believe I finally get to see you in person again,” Xander Vaughn said at the beginning of tonight’s call. Xander was Dani’s brother, and he and Ryan had been summer friends when Xander and Dani came to town to spend two months with their aunts. “Gotta be what, close to fifteen years?”

“Sounds right,” Ryan said, marveling at how much time had passed. Xander, who was two years older, stopped coming yearly when Ryan was sixteen. “Seriously, I’m not convinced all of you have legs.”

“Some of us have better legs than others,” said Janelle. As Eden’s best friend from high school, she was someone Ryan had only known tangentially, but he’d come to appreciate her humor and candor. She was good at keeping them on task and cutting through the bullshit. He heard she’d recently gotten engaged, too, to the man she’d been partnered with for a reality show. He had to remember not to drink the water when he got home. Clearly, there was something in it. “Sheridan’s are particularly lovely.”

As he watched, the woman with curly blonde hair blushed. He couldn’t help thinking about her legs. Would they be as lovely as her smile?

She was one of the only people he didn’t know before the calls started. A bridesmaid for Dani, she’d moved to Fable Notch five years earlier to help Laurel Stewart get her brewery running. She’d liked the town so much she’d stayed to open her own café, which was going to be the site for Theo and Eden’s rehearsal dinner. He’d been hearing about her cinnamon rolls for ages, but now that they’d “met” he was more interested in the woman behind the baked goods.

“I don’t think any of us can compete with Eden in the leg department,” Sheridan said, her soft Southern accent making everything she said sound lyrical, even as she deflected the compliment.

Ryan had noticed over the last few months that Sheridan did that regularly. She didn’t chime in unless it was in response to a direct question, and he got the sense she was as unsure about these calls and the coming weddings as he was.

Even without her accent and unruly hair, Sheridan stood out to him. Maybe it was the way she always seemed to be listening, even when she didn’t say much. Or maybe it was the way she smiled and laughed. There was something immediately likable about her. He’d even caught himself staring at her square a few times during the calls, quickly looking away when he realized what he was doing, glad no one could tell.

There had been one call when they were the first ones on, both of them having missed the message saying things were starting a half-hour later. Fortunately, Devon had opened the Zoom room at the regular time because they hadn’t responded to the update message. He was eating dinner, something leftover and tasteless, and Sheridan had just gotten out of the shower, her wet curls framing her face.

She fiddled with them, clearly self-conscious. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking of her wet and soapy only a few minutes before. “I almost forgot the call. Thank goodness for phone alerts.”

He swallowed the bite he’d taken. “Except we both missed the time change.”

“Probably a good thing for me, since it’s my bedtime an hour from now. I might have skipped coming all together and had Laurel or Dani fill me in later. I am plumb worn out.”

Ryan knew Sheridan had early mornings, but it hadn’t occurred to him that meant ending her nights early, too. “If you want to pop off, I’ll let everyone know. Wouldn’t want you to be grumpy in the morning.”

“Believe it or not, I typically get grumpy now. Mornings are my best time. I like waking up early.” He could tell from her smile that she meant it.

“Then I guess you’re in the right business,” he said. He’d looked up the Just Right Café website after the first of these calls. “You open at seven, if I remember correctly.”

“Officially, yes,” she said, “but locals know I unlock the door at six-thirty in case anyone needs their caffeine hit extra early. Not all of the baked goods are ready by that time, but coffee is.”

He tried to do the math in his head and gave up. “So, what time do you wake up?”

“Do you really want to know?” He nodded. “Five. I’m at the cafe by five thirty. On Sunday’s I sleep in until six.”

He groaned. He’d had his share of jobs that started early, but they had an end date. “That’s an ungodly hour to be up and going. It’s got to be dark half the year.”

“And cold. That’s what really took getting used to after being out of the area for several years.” From asking, he knew she was from Alabama and had gone to college with Laurel in Rhode Island. “But things warm up pretty quickly once I’m in my kitchen.”

It might be fun to warm her up. They’d continued talking until the others arrived. He hadn’t had any one-on-one time with her since, but he hoped that might change once he was in town. Seeing Sheridan in person was one of the things he was looking forward to.

“Ryan, are you with us?” Theo’s voice broke through his thoughts, and Ryan realized he’d missed something.

“Sorry, I zoned out. Still trying to figure out what I need to do before I fly out. Should I say yes to whatever you said and hope for the best?”

“He’s probably trying to figure out how many hearts he’ll have time to break while he’s in town,” Nick said, adding a wink to show he was teasing.

“Very funny,” Ryan said, shaking his head. Sometimes it wasn’t fun being with people who knew your past. Not that Nick was wrong.

Where each of his brothers had given his heart completely — and early — Ryan was more a ‘play the field’ kind of guy. In high school, if a girl started wanting something serious — and they all seemed to — it was an immediate sign to stop dating them. And while he’d had a few longer relationships in the years since, for the most part, he kept his heart safe so he could be free to do whatever he wanted for work. Sure, he believed in love and marriage. His parents had been together for almost forty years. Some day he hoped to have what they had, but he didn’t see any reason to rush it. He was barely thirty.

“I wanted to make sure you’ll be there for the dance lesson with everyone on Friday,” Eden said with a smile. Ryan wasn’t surprised that as a former professional dancer and now an instructor, she had something specific planned for the reception and everyone in her wedding party had to participate.

He was fairly certain he kept the eye roll off his face and out of his tone when he said, “Wouldn’t miss it. Have you decided who the unlucky person is who will be my partner?” There were four men and three women in Eden’s wedding party. He’d offered to sit it out to make the numbers even, but was vetoed. “Or am I dancing with Theo’s dog?”

Sheridan raised a hand. “That would be me.”

Okay, things were looking up. He couldn’t tell how she felt, so he kept his response light. “You pulled the short straw, huh? Sorry. I promise to do my best not to make us both look ridiculous.”

“Well, I appreciate that, but how do you know I’m not the one who’s going to make us look ridiculous,” Sheridan said. More deflection.

“No one is looking ridiculous,” said Eden. “Unless you’re suggesting I can’t teach a group of adults a basic dance.”

Ryan and Sheridan mumbled apologies and reassurances. The things he was willing to do for family, Ryan thought, amused by the situation but a little sorry that his face-to-face introduction with Sheridan was potentially going to be uncomfortable. At least, as far as he could tell, Sheridan was feeling equally challenged by the prospect.

After a few more details were reviewed, the call wound down. Ryan said his goodbyes and closed his laptop, then leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hands over his face. He couldn’t believe he was heading to New Hampshire in two days, with plans to stay for over a week. The last time he’d spent that long in Fable Notch was after his father’s heart attack. There hadn’t been much to do for the nearly four weeks, but he’d come so close to losing Martin he’d needed to be sure everything was fine. He’d stayed in his old room and did as much as he could to help.

And even then, his mother tried to fix him up with everyone, from his dad’s cardiology nurse to the single mother of one of her students. He could not go through that again.

Fortunately, for the wedding trips, Nick had offered him Dani’s old house for all three events. He had no idea what to expect, but he knew one thing for sure — his mother was going to be a handful. He wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable conversations about his love life, or lack thereof. If he were living under her roof, she’d probably invite women over daily for dinner so he could meet them. He shuddered.

He was pulled from his concerns when his phone buzzed. Turning it over, he saw a text from Theo in their group chat: Hey man, we’re excited to see you. Don’t worry about Ma. She’s just happy to have all her boys home, even if you don’t plan to stay. We’ll protect you as best we can.

Yeah, his brothers knew what he was likely walking into. Ryan appreciated the understanding and responded with a simple, Thanks. But as much as his brothers might want to help, they each had lives of their own and wouldn’t really be available to run interference. Not to mention the fact they were all so in love, they would probably agree with Millie that settling down was the right thing to do.

When Theo had gone home to help Martin with an arson case two years ago, Ryan expected to hear Theo had been successful, but not that he had fallen back in love with Eden and was relocating permanently to Fable Notch. Then, a few months later, Nick had gone home when he had job issues and also reconnected with his first love, Dani, who’d become the town veterinarian. At that point, Ryan joked it was only a matter of time before Cole returned.

He’d been right.

If he hoped his mother would be satisfied having three out of her four boys home, she’d soon proven him wrong. Nearly every call since Cole had returned had included not so subtle hints about him moving back.

He sighed. Why couldn’t it be only one of his brothers getting married? If it had been just Theo, Millie would have been satisfied instead of expecting more. How could he explain to her or his father that as much as he loved them, freedom and flexibility were more important? And he’d had enough experience to know that love and freedom did not go together.

“Give me another ten years, Ma, then I’ll settle down,” he’d told his mother on their most recent call.

“Ten years?” She’d sounded horrified. He may as well have said a century. He’d always thought that forty would be a good time to scale back the travel — one of his favorite things — and think about having a family, being around more. “I’ll never understand how you can always be wanting to move from place to place.”

That was true. She couldn’t understand. By any account, he had an ideal childhood with parents who showed him nothing but love and support. He knew where home was. Knew he could count on it and his parents being there for him. He could lead what appeared to be a rootless life because he had a base.

He just chose not to live there.

The time for staying put would come and when it did, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Fable Notch. Just not yet. He had no interest in changing his life. It was perfect as it was.

He wondered if there was a way to keep his mother out of his romantic life. Ryan suspected that along with the many other plans Millie was working on for the weddings — including her home being the site for Cole and Mia’s ceremony — she was creating a list of eligible women for him to meet.

Too bad he couldn’t show up with a girlfriend.

Unbidden, he found himself thinking of Sheridan. He liked her humor, her unusual expressions which peppered her speech on occasion, as well as how much she cared for Dani. Whenever Dani appeared overwhelmed, it was Sheridan who was the first to step in to calm her.

He’d also noticed over the last few months that, like him, she tended to agree to ideas that were simpler or required less active involvement from the attendants. And now she’d been roped into being his dance partner at Theo’s wedding. He wished he could talk Eden out of including him. Maybe he could convince her he’d be better off only taking pictures.

Still, spending time with Sheridan wouldn’t be a hardship. And as he put his laptop away and went to his closet to start packing, a new plan grew.