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Susan Mallery, NY Times bestselling authorSusan Mallery, NY Times bestselling author

Fool's Gold Series
August 2013

Prologue

Three Little Words, a romance novel by Susan Mallery

Dear Ford, I can't believe my sister was stupid enough to cheat on you with your best friend two weeks before your wedding. I know I'm only 14, but I still love you. I'll love you forever and write you every day. Or at least once a week. I cried and cried when you left. Maeve wasn't happy. She said I was making a scene. I got right in her face and told her she was a bitch for cheating on you. Then I got in trouble for swearing at my sister. But I don't care. I wish you didn't have to leave. I really will love you forever, Ford. I promise. Stay safe, okay?

Dear Ford, I'm going to the prom! I know I'm just a sophomore but Warren asked me and I said yes. My mom is practically more excited than me. We're going to San Francisco to buy a dress. My grandmother offered me one of the bridesmaid dresses from her store. OMG. As if. But mom was cool and said we could get something from one of the big department stores. Yay! I'll send a picture of me in the dress. Stay safe, okay?

Dear Ford, I know I haven't written in a while. It was too awful. Prom, I mean. Warren wasn't who I thought and he got drunk. He and his friends had hotel rooms. I thought we were going to a party, you know, but that's not what he had in mind. He said he thought I understood. What is it with guys and sex? Explain it to me, please. Not that you ever write me back, but if you ever do. I kicked him like Dad taught me and then he threw up on my dress, which made me throw up. I wish you'd been here to take me to the dance. Stay safe, okay?

Dear Ford, I'm sorry I haven't written again for so long. My grandma died. She wasn't sick or anything. Just one day, she didn't wake up. I can't seem to stop crying. I miss her so much. Mom is sad and it's really hard. I'm trying to be there for my mom, doing my chores and cooking dinner a couple of nights a week. Sometimes, when I'm having fun with my friends, I feel guilty. Like I'm never supposed to smile again. Dad took me out to lunch and said it was okay for me to be a teenager. I wish I knew if that were true. I hope you're okay out there. I worry about you, you know.

Dear Ford, I'm graduating. I'm enclosing a picture because, I don't know. Is it weird that I write? You never answer, and that's okay. I don't even know if you read these letters. But it's what I do because in a way, I still miss you. Writing you has become this thing I do. We've agreed on UCLA. I'm going to major in marketing. Mom keeps pushing accounting but with my math skills, we all know that's not going to happen. I'm excited and happy, except I still miss my grandma. Are you in Iraq? Sometimes when I hear the news on TV about the war, I wonder where you are.

Dear Ford, I love college. I'm just saying. Westwood is completely amazing and wonderful and we go to the beach most weekends. I'm dating a surfer. Billy. He's teaching me to surf. I'm not going to class as much as I should, but I'll make it up soon. I got highlights and I'm tan and this is the coolest my life has ever been. I love everything. I hope all is well over there, too.

Dear Ford, Fool's Gold community college isn't so bad. I miss my friends and Westwood, but this is okay, too. My parents still aren't speaking to me except for the long conversations every week about how disappointed they are with me, that I wasn't mature enough to handle UCLA. I feel really bad about being so stupid and irresponsible, but me saying that doesn't stop the lectures. Still, I know I deserve them. Billy broke up with me a couple of weeks ago. I'm not surprised. He wasn't exactly long term boyfriend material. I'm going to pay attention to my classes and work on being more mature. Sometimes I think about you going off to war around my age. That must have been incredibly hard. I'm still learning how to stand on my own two feet. Thinking of you and hoping you're well.

Dear Ford, I have a job in NYC. Can you believe it? A marketing job. Do you know how many marketing students graduate every year? Like a million and there are maybe 2 jobs and I got one of them! Me!! Mom and I are going to find me an apartment. I've been looking online and basically what I can afford is about 200 square feet with a toilet. But I don't care. It's New York. I'm really doing it. Little Isabel from Fool's Gold is going to the Big Apple. By the way, do you why they call New York that? Why is it like an apple? I'm not sure you're even getting these letters but I wanted to tell you the good news. Maybe someday when you're back in the States you'll come visit me.

Dear Ford, Sorry I haven't written in so long. I've been crazy busy. We're working on a campaign for a new Tequila brand. We've teamed them up with MTV and I'm involved. It's really exciting. I'm meeting all kinds of people and I even get to go to the MTV Awards? I love New York and I love my job, even though dating here is as dismal as I heard. Too many single girls. But I'm not desperate. I love my work and if a guy doesn't treat me right, then I walk away. Hey, look—I finally grew up. I saw your mom last time I was home and she says you're okay. I'm glad. Fleet Week was last month and I thought of you. Hope you're staying safe, Ford.

Dear Ford, Eric is the guy I told you about before. He works on Wall Street and is very cute and funny. Smart, too. One of his friends hinted that he's about to ask me to marry him, which is exciting, of course. The thing is, he doesn't know that I write you. I know, I know, you never answer and it's more like writing my diary, only I think I need to stop. Because when I write you, I'm not just writing a diary entry. I'm wondering who you are and what you're like now. It's been forever. Ten years. Maeve is still popping out babies every couple of years. I'm sure you're over her. At least I hope you are. I know you're still serving our country. No one knows what you do, but I can't help thinking you're in danger sometimes. I'm not that 14 year old kid who swore she would love you forever anymore, but as silly as it sounds, you'll always have a piece of my heart. Take care, Ford. Good-bye.

Ford and Isabel:
Kent and Consuelo:

Chapter One

"Death by lace and tulle," Isabel Beebe said as she waved the nozzle of the steamer.

"I'm so sorry," Madeline told her, then winced as she studied the front of the wedding gown.

"Brides-to-be are determined." Isabel lifted up the front layers of the white dress and carefully clipped them to the portable clothesline in the back room of the boutique. With a dress like this—multiple layers of flowing chiffon—she would start on the inside and work her way out.

Isabel focused the steam on the wrinkles. An excited bride had wanted to find out if her potential wedding dress was comfortable to sit in. So she'd sat. For half an hour while on the phone with a girlfriend. Now the sample had to be steamed back into perfection for the next interested customer.

"Should I stop them next time?" Madeline asked.

Isabel shook her head. "Would that we could. But no. Brides are fragile and emotional. As long as they're not tossing paint on the dresses or reaching for scissors, let them sit, twirl and dance away. We are here to serve."

She showed Madeline how to hold the chiffon so the steam flowed through evenly and then explained about the layers and the time to let the dress cool and dry before being put back with the other sample dresses.

"It helps if you think of each wedding gown as a very delicate princess," Isabel said with a grin. "From a family with a lot of inbreeding. At any second, there could be disaster. We're here to keep that from happening."

Madeline had only been working at Paper Moon Wedding Gowns for three weeks, but Isabel already liked her. She showed up early for her shift and was endlessly patient with the brides and their mothers.

Isabel passed over the steamer. "Your turn."

She watched until she was sure Madeline knew what she was doing, then returned to the front of the store. She replaced sample shoes, straightened a couple of veils, then gave in to the inevitable and admitted she was stalling. What had to be done, had to be done. Putting it off wouldn't change reality. Oh, but how she wanted to.

After sucking in a breath for strength, she went into the small office, grabbed her purse and stepped into the work room and smiled at Madeline. "I'll be back in an hour."

"Okay. See you then."

Isabel left the shop and walked purposefully to her car. Fool's Gold was small enough that she generally walked everywhere, but her current destination was just far enough to warrant a car. That and the fact that driving meant a faster and cleaner getaway. If things went badly, she didn't want to have to run like a frightened bunny. Not that she could in her four inch heels, but still. With a car, there might be a spray of gravel and she could disappear in a cloud of dust, like in the movies.

"Things are not going to go badly," she told herself. "Things are going to go great. I'm visualizing greatness." She nearly closed her eyes, then remembered she was driving. "I'm wearing my tiara of greatness even as I turn."

She went left on Eighth Street, then right and before she was ready, she found herself driving into the parking lot of CDS.

Cerberus Defense Sector was the new security firm in town. They trained bodyguards and offered classes in self-defense and other manly things. Isabel wasn't clear on the details. She found that she and exercise had a much better relationship if they avoided each other.

She parked next to a wicked looking muscle car from maybe the 1960s, a large black Jeep tragically painted with flames and a monster Harley. Her Prius looked desperately out of place. Not to mention small.

Now that she wasn't driving, it was safe for her to close her eyes. She did and tried to visualize, but her stomach was churning too much for her to do much more than worry about throwing up.

"This is stupid!" she announced and opened her eyes. "I can do it. I can have a reasonable conversation with an old friend."

Only Ford Hendrix wasn't an old friend and the talk was going to be about how despite her vow to love him forever, the ten years she'd spent writing him, not to mention including pictures, that he had no reason to be afraid of her. Because she thought that he might be. Just a little.

She doubted it was anything he would admit. The man had been a SEAL. She knew that, in addition, he'd be part of some special joint task force that had been even more dangerous. She also knew he'd returned to Fool's Gold nearly three months ago and in all that time, they'd managed to avoid on another. But that wasn't possible anymore.

"I am not a stalker," she said, then groaned. Bad way to start a conversation. And not one designed to get him to believe her.

"Whatever," she muttered and got out of her car.

She paused to smooth the front of her black dress. It was fitted without being tight and skimmed all the lumpy bits. As much as she loved clothes, a reasonable person would assume she was obsessed with looking great and therefore working out. But for Isabel, the call of the cookie was hard to ignore. So she was really good at draping her curves and still looking stylish. Or so she told herself.

She adjusted her sleeves, paused to brush off a bit of dust from her shoes and then prepared to face the lion in his den. Or warrior in his cave. Whichever.

She walked into CDS. No one sat at the reception desk, so she started down the hall toward the sound of music and a weird thumping noise. She saw double doors standing open and stepped through them into the biggest workout room she'd ever seen.

The ceiling had to be thirty feet high. Ropes hung from beams at one end of the room. There were all kinds of scary looking exercise equipment, boxing bag thingies and other weights and stuff she couldn't name. In the center of the room a petite woman with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail was taking on a much larger man. Taking him on and maybe even winning.

They both wore protective headgear and each had tape around their hands. It took her a second to recognize her friend Consuelo Ly as the woman.

Isabel watched as Consuelo swung out her leg. The guy moved, but not quick enough. Her heel caught him behind the knee and down he went. Isabel winced, but then the guy was up faster than she would have thought possible and he had the woman in a headlock. Consuelo flailed around, trying to kick him or punch him. Her elbow connected with his midsection. He grunted, but didn't let go.

"You two know what you're doing, right?" Isabel asked. "Is someone going to get hurt? Should I call 9-1-1?"

The man turned toward her. Consuelo didn't. One second he was standing, then next he was flat on his back and she had her foot pressed against his throat.

"Sucker," the woman said and pulled off her protective headgear. She glared at her victim. "Are you that stupid on a mission?"

"Not usually."

She held out her hand. The guy took it and she pulled him to his feet. Consuelo turned to Isabel.

"Thanks. I owe you."

"I didn't mean to be a distraction," Isabel said. "You're so small and he's so..."

The man removed his headgear and turned to her. Isabel felt her mouth go dry, which was a much better reaction than the sudden flipping going on in her stomach. She had a feeling she'd either gone pale or red and kind of hoped for the former. It would be less embarrassing.

The man—all six feet of muscles in a T-shirt and sweatpants—was just as handsome as she remembered. His eyes were just as dark, his hair as thick. Fourteen years away had no doubt changed Ford Hendrix on the inside, but on the outside, he was better than ever.

She still remembered him standing in her parent's living room, confronting her sister. Isabel had been told to stay in her room, but she'd crept out to listen. She remembered crouching in the hall, crying as the man she'd loved as much as her fourteen-year-old heart could allow had asked why Maeve had cheated on him and if she really loved Leonard.

Maeve had cried, too, and apologized, but said it was all true. That she was ending things with Ford, that she should have ended them weeks before. As their wedding was in less than ten days, Isabel couldn't help but agree. There'd been more fighting—mostly yelling on his part, then he'd stalked out.

Isabel had run after him, begging him not to go. He'd ignored her, had kept on walking. Two days later, he'd joined the Navy and left Fool's Gold. She'd declared her love in an endless stream of letters, but had never seen him again until this second.

As an aside, he hadn't answered her letters. Not a single one.

 

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