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Man, what a lot of work just to get hitched.
Matt weaved his way through the sightseers enjoying the ballroom of the historic Riverway mansion, a plantation that had once taken part in producing 75 percent of the world's cotton, but was now reduced to group tours and a venue for weekend events. He knew he was headed for the outdoor, private wedding reception when he spotted two Southern belles in authentic dress.
Choosing a Civil War theme to celebrate a marriage seemed wrong. But who knows, maybe the couple enjoyed the irony? Regardless, given the authentic mansion worthy of Scarlett O'Hara and the costumes of the guests, the wedding planner was either a genius or insane. Matt was pulling for the latter, because he absolutely needed Callie LaBeau to be insane. If she were a reasonable, rational individual, she'd refuse Matt's request. Which meant his plans to fly in, fix his problem and fly back home would be over. And he'd be screwed.
Catching up with the two ladies in 1800s dresses, petticoats rustling beneath, wasn't hard. Their hoopskirts caught as they tried to open one of the French doors leading to the backyard, and their attempt to cross the threshold side by side didn't work out so well.
Matt bit back the grin and the fatigue of thirty-six hours on two hours of sleep, pulling open the other door.
The one in an ugly yellow-colored dress tossed him an inviting smile. "Thanks."
"Bathroom breaks must be a real bitch," Matt said.
The lady in lavender laughed. "You have no idea."
"Do either of you know where I can find Callie LaBeau?" he asked.
Lavender lady jerked her thumb toward one end of the outdoor reception. "Last time I saw her, she was over by the bar."
Matt took that as good news. Alcohol would definitely be a requirement in a crazy setting such as this, hopefully softening the wedding planner toward Matt's cause.
"I think she's the only one in royal-blue." Yellow dress sounded a little jealous.
Matt took the exit leading out to the twenty-acre grounds that smelled of freshly cut grass and held the crowd of wedding guests in Civil War costumes. Kerosene lamps sat on tables covered in white and dangled alongside Spanish moss in the giant oaks. The trees provided a canopy for the reception, the soft lamps casting a glow against the twilight sky.
He hoped the lamps were fake or the theme would soon be overrun by the yellow of firemen suits.
Fortunately, the lighting was low enough that Matt's dark pants and white, button-down shirt blended with the attire of the staff posing as servants. As for the male guests, half wore blue Union uniforms while the others sported gray Confederate uniformsgiven the choice of a Southern theme, most likely the bride's side of the family. Matt scanned the brightly colored Southern belle dresses dotting the scene and spied one of royal-blue in front of an old-fashioned buggy being used as a bar.
Relief relaxed his shoulders. Today's four-hour flight to New Orleans had been turbulent and hot, hopeless for snagging a few minutes of shut-eye. A cold beer would go down good about now.
He approached the makeshift bar and leaned a hip against the wagon. "Callie LaBeau?"
The woman turned, and Matt was hit with a vision of hair the color of dark honey, wide, brown eyes and a slim but clearly female body filling out the bust of her gown. Appreciation thrummed through his veins, but he ignored the distracting sensation.
"Matt Paulson." He stuck out his hand.
"Colin called and said he was sending you my way."
A palm briefly pressed against his. The soft skin and the drawl, as honey-soaked as her hair, brought to mind hot, Southern nights filled with heated skin and sweat-soaked sheets.
Stick to the plan, Paulson. Get in, take care of the problem and get out.
She released his hand and her lips quirked. "Though Colin didn't mention he was sending you now."
There was no irritation in her voice, only the calm tone of one who dealt with life's surprises and upsets with grace and dignity. He liked her already.
She'd need that skill set for what he had in mind.
"Colin told me I could find you here."
He scanned the guests milling about. "I assumed you were scoping out a venue for an event. He didn't mention I was walking into the middle of an actual wedding reception."
"Colin's a good friend, and I owe him a lot. But he's an obsessed gamer," she responded with a shrug that said it all.
Matt understood. Over the course of the past two years, he'd learned that the geekdom world was built on the backs of those whose lives revolved around the game. Outside social conventions often didn't compute. His brother's life currently consisted of work and spending hours immersed in the world of Dungeons of Zhorg, having traded one obsession for another. Matt just hoped Tommy's current fixation lasted.
Because dungeons and dragons and trolls beat the hell out of crystal meth.
As always, the years-old ache in his chest hurt as he remembered a time when his brother was gaunt, paranoid and delusional. Sick and wasting away right in front of Matt's eyes.
His stomach roiled, and he pushed the memories aside. "Should we meet up tomorrow or do you have a minute?"
"I'll be out of town all day on Saturday. How long are you in New Orleans?"
"Until Sunday morning."
She let out a huff of humor. "Now it is, then."
Callie reached into the bodice of her gown. The sight of those graceful fingers dipping into her cleavage hiked his brow and tightened his groin. Fortunately, he kept his expression one of amused sarcasm rather than the truth: a sleep-deprived guy who found the sight a total turn-on. A grin curled her mouth as she pulled out a tiny pocket watch.
"I try to keep things as authentic as possible. As the one in charge, that makes things difficult. Working without my tablet has been a real pain." She glanced at the time and blew an escaped strand of honey-colored hair from her cheek. "My assistant can keep an eye on things for a bit. But you only have twenty minutes until I need to prepare for the cutting of the cake."
Twenty minutes wasn't a lot of time to convince someone to do the impossible.
He ordered a beer and Callie requested a club soda. After she spoke with her assistant, who wore a similar gown in red, and looked a lot more harried than the wedding planner herself, they headed to a small bar along the back of the house that wasn't in use.
"What I wouldn't give to lean back in that seat right now." Callie looked longingly at a chair at one of the few empty tables, like a student eyeing an espresso after an all-nighter. "But this dress makes relaxing impossible. And I'm tired of sitting up straight."
"That getup doesn't look comfortable, either."
"The petticoat is stiff and the corset makes breathing impossible." She leaned against the counter, her brown eyes intrigued. "So tell me about your wedding-day fantasies, Mr. Paulson."
A bark of shocked laughter shot from his mouth. Hell, before he could think about tying the knot he'd have to be in one place long enough to successfully date someone. And that wouldn't happen anytime soon. If ever.
How many times had he tried, and miserably failed, to be the long-distance boyfriend? How many times had he tried, and failed, to keep a relationship going? An occasional round of great sex was one thing, but that held a woman for only so long. And there weren't many willing to play second chair to his responsibilities to Tommy. Eventually, they all left, the resentment toward his priorities too much to overcome.
Matt cleared his throat. "I'm not here to discuss my fantasies."
Another stab of awareness hit, stronger than the one before. Damn, why were they even using the word? Currently his fantasies consisted of a brown-eyed beauty wearing an old-fashioned dress with a ridiculous hoop beneath. But the thought of unlacing a corset was surprisingly hot.
He settled next to her at the counter. "I'm here about my brother's wedding."
Was that a hint of interest that flickered through her eyes?
Before he could decide, she glanced down at her drink and took a sip before carefully setting down her glass. "So why isn't he here?"
"Can't get the time off work."
More accurately, with Tommy's track record, he couldn't risk losing another job.
"And the bride to be?" she drawled.
A history as bad as the groom's. Perhaps worse.
"They had prior commitments," Matt said instead, sending her a smile that didn't encourage further questioning. "I had a few days off, so I volunteered to come down and get the ball rolling."
She eyed him steadily. "Dedicated of you."
Matt's lips quirked dryly. She had no idea.
"What can I say?" he said with an easy shrug. "I'm a hell of a brother."
Matt glanced down at the woman who stood a good six inches shorter than him. A height which was just high enough for a great view down the front of that ridiculous outfit that displayed her breasts as though they were a commodity. Perhaps during the time period of the dress, they had been.
Man. He rubbed his eyes. The fatigue was clearly getting to him. He'd worked four twelve-hour shifts in a row, the E.R. packed with patients every nightjust how he liked it. The last night he'd encountered a trauma case that left him flying high on adrenaline, unable to sleep. He loved the challenge, and he was damned good at emergency medicine, too. He'd finished up a satisfying two weeks of work in one of the busiest E.R.s in Los Angeles and had been set to climb on a flight back to Michigan to check on Tommy. Until his brother had called and shared his and Penny's plans for the wedding. So, instead, Matt had headed to LAX and climbed onto a plane bound for New Orleans.
"Don't be too impressed, Mr. Paulson."
Matt blinked, forcing himself back to the present and the lovely set of boobs. "Come again?"
"The corset pushes everything up. They're not as big as the dress makes them look."
He quirked an eyebrow, amused by her admission. "Who said I was looking?"
Even the laugh that escaped held a hint of the South. "No one had to say anything, Mr. Paulson. I can see your eyes with my own."
Matt scrubbed a hand down his face. "Sorry. I haven't had much sleep in the past thirty-six hours and I got a little distracted. And I think you should call me Matt." A hint of a grin finally crept up his face. "I'm guessing the formalities aren't necessary once you get caught leering down a woman's dress. How much time do I have left?"
Her lips quirked as she reached in to her bodice "It's now seven forty-five. You have ten minutes left." She tipped her head curiously. "Don't you wear a watch?"
"I do," he said. "I just enjoy the sight of you pulling that watch out of your dress."
Her warm laugh encouraged him to settle more comfortably against the counter.
"So tell me about your brother's wedding fantasy," she said.
She turned and leaned her elbows back on the counter, and he wondered if she knew the position put her on even better display. From the focused look on her face, he'd say no. The woman had slipped fully into themed-wedding-plan-ner mode. He forced his eyes away from the expanse of skin of her bared shoulders and the line between the curve of her breasts.
"Simple," Matt said. "His fantasy involves a video game."
Callie groaned. "That's why Colin sent you to me."
"Tommy and Penny want their wedding to be a Dungeons of Zhorg weekend set here in New Orleans," he said. "And since I volunteered to come and hire someone to organize the wedding, I wanted to check and make sure there wouldn't be any legal problems with the plan. So I hunted Colin down to clear up any copyright hassles."
"Which would only be a problem if you were selling tickets to the public. I assume this is a private party."
"More or less."
Her eyebrows drifted higher. "So which is it, more or less?"
Here was where things were about to get tricky.
Matt shifted on his feet, trying to get comfortable against the counter. "They want to combine their wedding with a LARP event for their fellow gaming friends. You know, a live-action"
"Live-action role-playing. Yes, I know. I dated Colin long enough to be well versed in geek speak."
Matt felt his brow crinkle in surprise.
So Colin was her ex. When Matt had searched the creator of Dungeons of Zhorg out at Rainstorm Games and found him in his office late on a Friday afternoon, Matt's opinion of the geeked-out gamer had been complete. Fortunately, the man had no problem with Tommy and Penny's plans. In fact, Colin thought a newspaper article about the event would be good publicity for his game. Matt had told him he'd check with Tommy before agreeing, but figured his brother and the equally geeked-out fiancée would be thrilled. Matt could just see the headline now.
Ex-Drug Addicts Saved by Finding True Love Through the Dungeons of Zhorg.
Everyone would love the story. Hell, Matt loved the story.