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Oh, dear Lord, what had she gotten herself into?
A cool breeze blew Yvonne Delisle's hair into her eyes and she impatiently tucked it behind her ear as she stared up at the ancient carriage house. her career as a wedding consultant, the sixteen years she'd spent on the pageant circuit and, most importantly, being the only child of Savannah social royalty Richard and Elaine Delisle, had all taught her one very important fact.
Especially when it came to weddings. So why on earth retired senator Allen Wallace and vineyard owner Diane Sheppard would want to have theirs in this particular building was beyond her. The wood siding was weathered and mottled, ranging from a dull gray to deep tan. Shingles were sliding off the steeply pitched roof. What glass was left in the windows was scratched beyond repair, and the left side of the overhang above the double carriage doors dropped precariously.
She tucked her cold fingers into the short pockets of her fitted jacket. Then again, it wasn't up to her to decide where her couples got married. If it was, the ShieldsLarson wedding never would've taken place at a dairy farmcomplete with mooing cows and the pungent smell of manure.
No, she thought as she crossed to the building's wooden door, the tall heels of her black pumps wobbling on the gravel drive. Her job was to make sure the bride got exactly what she wanted. Whether the wedding took place at a church, the beach or a carriage house that looked as if it should be condemned.
She hoped it didn't fall down while she was inside.
With a quick prayer, she unlocked the door and stepped in. The smell hit her firstwet wood, motor oil and dust. Then she realized that even though the morning sunlight filtered through the dirty windows, it was colder inside than out. Leaving the door open, she flipped on the light switches. Several bare bulbs hanging from lowlying rafters flickered to life.
At least it was big enough to accommodate several hundred guests. Or it would be once it was cleared out. The place was packed with cardboard boxes, plastic tubs, shovels, rakes and other implements, wine barrels ranging from short and squat to one that reached her shoulder, old tools and large glass jars on a threetiered wooden shelf.
Eyes narrowed, she turned in a slow circle and imagined the space as it could be. It had high ceilings, wideplanked floors and two exposedbrick walls. With some cleaningokay, a lot of cleaninga few coats of paint and new windows, it could be charming. In a rustic sort of way.
Maybe, just maybe, this could work.
She dug her BlackBerry from her purse and started to pace, kicking up dust as she typed in notes.
Candles. Dozens and dozens of white candles of all shapes and sizes. Miniature white lights strung along the rafters. Turning, she walked back to the door. She wasn't due to meet with Diane until this afternoon, so didn't know if the woman had already chosen a color scheme or not, but Yvonne was thinking chocolatebrown and bright green. Or better yet, brown and robin's egg blue.
She could incorporate the wine barrels into the decor. Use corks as name card holders. This wasn't just the setting of Diane Sheppard's second wedding after all; the Diamond Dust was her winery. A huge part of her life. Yvonne put her phone away, hung her purse on the handlebars of a faded red Huffy bike and set out to see what else she could find of use.
Twenty minutes later she'd accumulated several glass bottles, a wooden shutter she had no idea how she'd ever use but hadn't been able to pass up and some wide picture frames. And then she saw it. The inspiration for the head table's centerpiecean antique lantern.
Now all she had to do was get to it. Easier said than done, as it was on top of some sort of workbench behind at least three feet of junk. Grabbing the arms of a hideous velvet highbacked chair, she pulled. Nothing happened. Not only was this the ugliest chair she'd ever had the misfortune of seeing, it was also the heaviest.
She slid her snug skirt up a few inches, bent and adjusted her grip on the chair.
"Excuse me." She froze. That deep, ohsofamiliar voice. A voice that, even after all these years of trying to get him out of her head, Yvonne still heard in her dreams. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
The nape of her neck prickled. She didn't have to turn to know that Aidan Sheppard stood behind her, getting a good look at her rear. She straightened quickly, swayed a little before regaining her balance.
"Hello, Aidan," she said, praying he didn't notice the slight tremor in her voice. She smoothed her skirt back down to just above her knees, then turned. "How are you?"
He looked older, of course. She'd expected that. What she hadn't expected was her reaction to him. Her mixed emotions. He was so tall and lean and male. Unshaven, his face was sharper, the angles more pronounced. His shoulders broader in his sweaty, white Tshirt.
But his eyes were the same, a light blue with enough green in them to make it seem as if they were ever changing. For so long, she'd tried to be the woman he saw with those eyes. Until she realized she'd much rather be loved for herself.
"What are you doing here?" he repeated.
"I was trying to move this." She indicated the chair. "I saw that lantern and"
"And you thought you'd take it?"
She pursed her lips. "To use as a centerpiece," she clarified.
He looked pointedly at the other items she'd collected. "And you couldn't find a lanternor any of this other stuffin Charleston?"
"I'm sure I could. But I'm not in Charleston, am I?"
"Which brings me back to my original question."
"I wanted to check out the building, see what I have to work " His words sank in. She frowned. "What do you mean?"
He raised one eyebrow. "What are you doing in Jewell? Why are you on my family's property?"
Surely DianeMrs. Sheppardwouldn't keep something this big, important, awkward from her son. Would she? "Didn't your mother tell you?"
Yvonne forced herself not to stare at his bare legs. He must be getting cold in those running shorts. "She hired me."
Thanks to her parents' tutelage in presenting an unruffled facade in any given situation, there was no way he could sense her nervousness. Her uncertainty.
"To work at the Diamond Dust," she added when he said nothing.
"Is that so?" he murmured. "In what capacity?"
"She I " Yvonne licked her suddenly dry lips. She tugged at the bottom of her jacket. "I'm an events coordinator."
He just stared.
Maybe her mother had been right and this was a mistake. A huge one. Maybe Yvonne shouldn't have come here.
Shouldn't have thoughthopedAidan would forgive her.
"You're an events coordinator," he said. It wasn't a question.
"Yes. My specialty is weddings."
"Weddings," he repeated in a monotone. "Putting that business degree to good use, I see."
Ducking her head so he couldn't see that his dig had hit home, she shoved the chair a few more inches to get behind it. His was a familiar setdown, one she'd heard often enough from her parents. One she knew better than to respond to.
"Yes, well, plans change," she said, moving aside a box of record albums. "But you already know that, don't you?"
As soon as the words left her mouth, she cringed. She wasn't here to antagonize him. She was here to do a job.
But Aidan he didn't seem angry that she'd reminded him of his own forgotten plans. In fact, he now seemed indifferent to the cold and to her.
She wanted to throw her shoe at him. Or that damn lantern. If she ever reached it.
"Since you seem surprised to find out your mother hired me," Yvonne said, setting a tarnished brass table lamp on the chair, "I suppose she also didn't mention that I'll be staying here, as well."
"Tell me you mean here as in the town of Jewell."
"At the cottage. It seemed more.convenient.than trying to find a place in town."
"We wouldn't want you to be inconvenienced now, would we?"
"I offered to pay rent," she assured him. "But your mother said it was empty, and included lodging as part of my fee." She met his eyes unflinchingly. "I wouldn't want you to think I'm taking advantage of Diane's generosity."
"One thing I never worry about is my mother being taken advantage of."
Yvonne would have smiled, if he wasn't looking at her so coldly. "No. Of course not. Diane's very capable." Capable. Confident. Intimidating. Almost as intimidating as her own mother.
Yvonne leaned against the hard edge of the counter and reached for the lantern. Her fingertips grazed the metal base. She glanced over her shoulder at him. "I don't suppose you could ?"
His refusal surprised her. He'd never refused her anything before. But that was then, she reminded herself.
She searched the area and spied a blue metal toolbox halfway under the bench. Kneeling, she wrestled it forward. "Do you.are you living here as well?" she asked, straightening. "At the Diamond Dust, I mean."
Generations of Sheppards had lived at the historic plantation.
Aidan didn't jump in to tease her out of her nerves. Smooth things over. He simply crossed his arms. "No."
He certainly was getting good at using that one word with her. How was he not freezing in his running gear?
She turned her back to him and quickly pulled her skirt halfway up her thighs. Her face was so hot, she expected her hair to catch on fire. She stepped onto the toolbox, grabbed the lantern and stepped back down.
And yanked her skirt back into place.
"So you're still at the house?" she asked, the lantern clutched to her chest.
The bungalow with vaulted ceilings and bright, airy rooms.
"What I can't help but wonder," he said, "is what made you or my mother think that you working here would be a good idea."
"I can't speak for your mother " Even if she could, she wouldn't dare. "But I wanted a change. A challenge."
And God knew getting the carriage house ready for a wedding in just over a month certainly qualified.
"Got tired of hosting fundraisers and attending luncheons at the country club?" he asked, as if they were discussing nothing more importantor interesting than a round of golf.
Her grip on the lantern tightened. The corner of it dug into her ribs. He'd always treated her as if she was delicate. Someone best suited to look pretty on his arm. To be charming and sweet, and agree with him. To stand back and let him handle everything.
As her parents had taught her.
Just, she could admitif only to herselfas she'd let him believe.
But she wasn't that person anymore.
"Actually," she said, "I've been working for World Class Weddings for the past five years." And from the blank look he gave her, he had no idea what she was talking about. "It's a wedding planning service in Charleston. One of the best."
The sun streamed through the doorway, haloing Aidan in soft light. "And you decided to give that up to come work here?"
"I'm not giving anything up." Which was one of the reasons she'd ultimately decided to accept Diane's offer. "I'm excited to be here. To help build the special events side of your business from the start." And then she'd go back to her job, back to her friends in Charleston.
"Unfortunately," Aidan saidhow she hated his sarcasm "I don't share your enthusiasm."
"My enthusiasm for ?"
"Any of it." His Tshirt pulled snug against his shoulders as his hands fisted beneath his crossed arms. "The winery hosting events, and mainly, you being anywhere near my family's business."
Though she told herself his opinions, his likes and dislikes, didn't matter to her, not anymore, she was disappointed. "Oh. Well, maybe in time"
"Time isn't going to change my mind. And even if it could, it wouldn't matter, because you won't be here."
"I don't understand."
"Let me make it clear to you, then," he said flatly.
Yvonne blinked. Blinked again. But when she spoke, her voice was as precise, as unfailingly polite, as always. "You can't fire me."
Aidan wanted to throw that damn chair through a window. "I can't?" He smiled.
She hesitated, confusion clouding her brown eyes. "No. I have a contract."
"A contract with the Diamond Dust?"
"Of course." Yvonne tilted her head so that her blond hair fell over her shoulder. He didn't doubt the move was practiced. Just as rehearsed as her placid expression and condescending tone. "Would you care to see it?"
Though his mother owned the business, Aidan was the one in charge. All contracts went through him first. Everything to do with what he still called his father's winerywhich, in a matter of months, would be his winerywent through Aidan first. "I can't think of anything I'd like more." Except throwing her off his property for good.
"I left it in my car," she said. She looked at him uncertainly. "If you'll excuse me?"
And that's when he realized she wasn't being polite. She wanted him to move.
With a mocking bow, he took a deliberate step to the left, giving her plenty of space. "By all means. The last thing I'd want is to get in your way. Not when you have your heart set on leaving."
Her step faltered. But then she continued on, her gait measured in her tight skirt. The sound of her high heels faded as she walked out the door.
But unlike her exit seven years ago, this time he was the one in control.
He followed her outside and watched as she crossed to her silver Lexus LS. She moved like the debutante she'd beenthe sway of her hips subtle, her slim shoulders back. He watched as she slowly crossed the gravel driveway and opened her car door before sitting in the driver's seat.
She was, as always, cool. Reserved.
It'd been that beauty and her air of you can't touch this that'd drawn him to her in the first place.
And he married herloved herdespite her aloofness. He'd wanted to have children with her, have a life with her. Grow old with her.
But she'd left. And she had no right to come back.
The sweat had long since dried and cooled on his body as he stared over the car to the rolling hills surrounding his family's property. Hard to believe not fifteen minutes ago it'd been just a normal Wednesday morning run. And then he'd reached the carriage house and discovered Yvonne digging through his father's junk in that damn skirt and a short, snug jacket that emphasized her tiny waist.
He smirked. Once a beauty queen, always a beauty queen. Even in dust, grime and rodent droppings.
Yvonne climbed out of the car with a large manila envelope in her hand. By the time she reached him, his expression was once again carefully neutral, his shoulder relaxed.
She held out the envelope. "See for yourself."
Aidan took it, not letting their fingers touch. He flipped it over. The shipping label was addressed to World Class Weddings, care of Ms. Yvonne Delisle.
She hadn't kept his name.
He pulled out the sheaf of papers inside and quickly scanned them.