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By Delia Latham
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2012 Delia Latham
All rights reserved.
... I will seek him whom my soul loveth. — Song of Solomon 3:2
Gypsy Lovell eyed the framed print hanging across the room. Daintily drawn letters spelled out what she assumed was part of a scripture. No scholar of holy things, she had still managed to absorb a few basic Bible facts in her twenty-nine-plus years, and after her move to Castle Creek, she'd met more religious people than she'd seen in her entire life.
Besides, it made perfect sense that the quote would be a scripture. She was sitting in the bright, airy visitor's lounge of Solomon's Gate, a Christian dating agency that had taken the conservative town by surprise — and by storm — some months ago. Sharing the bold red-and-white striped sofa with her was the agency's gorgeous, auburn-haired owner, Destiny Gallagher, whose round tummy barely made an impression under her oh-so-chic maternity top.
For the past twenty minutes or so, Destiny had bombarded Gypsy with brochures and flyers and heartwarming testimonials, all touting the success rate of this fledgling business.
Gypsy already knew most of it. She'd done her homework. The fact that Solomon's Gate was a Christian-based company had been part of what drew her here. Though she had never attended a church service, she'd sought this place precisely because she knew most of the clients were religious. That made marrying a stranger, even temporarily, feel a little safer. Men who wore Christianity out in the open like some kind of badge had to be honest to a fault ... or complete wimps. Both of those traits suited her purposes just fine.
Soft laughter interrupted Gypsy's study of the cheerful surroundings. "I lost you, didn't I? I'm sorry, I still get so excited when I talk about this agency."
"I apologize." Gypsy smiled, but if it looked as fake as it felt, she wasn't fooling this bright woman. "I'm afraid I'm easily distracted."
"It's OK. Is this your first experience with a dating service?"
She nodded, and a huge fist squeezed her insides. If someone had told her two weeks ago that she'd be sitting where she sat right now, she'd have threatened to turn them into a toad. Not that she had the slightest idea how to turn a person into any kind of amphibian, but she'd been born with the sultry looks to match her ridiculous name, so people tended to suspect she might.
Until now, Gypsy had no plans to ever be married. Watching her mother fade and draw into herself after being abandoned by the love of her life — Gypsy's father — freed Gypsy of any illusions about romance in general, and certainly about happily ever after.
But Destiny didn't know that.
And Gypsy wasn't going to tell her.
"Well, if your application is approved and you become an official Solomon's Gate Seeker, then we'll pray that your first experience will also be your last." The owner's open smile lit up her whole face, including the mesmerizing green eyes with their fringe of lush, dark lashes. She peeked at the application attached to a clipboard on her lap. "Speaking of prayer. I haven't asked you yet about your faith." She looked up and straight into Gypsy's soul. "You are a Christian, aren't you?"
"Depends on what you call a Christian."
The other woman's smile disappeared. "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior? Do you believe that He is Lord? That He died for the sins of the world, that He rose again on the third day, and that He now lives in the hearts of those who love Him and live according to His Word?" Her otherwise smooth brow furrowed enough to place a neat little crease across her forehead. "It's not a trick question, Gypsy. Either you are a Christian, or you're not."
Gypsy shrugged. "Then I guess I'm not. Is that a problem?"
"Yes, I'm afraid it is." Destiny laid aside the application she'd been studying and shook her head. "My Seekers are Christians. That's the foundation Solomon's Gate is built on. I rarely make exceptions to that rule, and then only when I feel a direct unction from the Holy Spirit."
What on earth was the woman talking about? Unction? Holy Spirit?
Gypsy stood and crossed to a window that offered a view of a huge, rolling green lawn. She had hoped not to have to explain herself in too much detail. Heaven only knew how much she needed to find what she was looking for in a hurry. She didn't have time to go traipsing off to Sacramento — the nearest large metropolis — to find an agency without all the goody-goody hang-ups.
"Let me be honest, Destiny. I'm not here to find —" Gypsy tossed a derisive glance at the scripture on the wall. "—'he whom my soul loveth.' I have no use for romance, and I don't believe in love. I just need a husband for a few months."
"I — I beg your pardon?" Destiny stammered.
Her elegant hostess seemed a bit ruffled. Oh, well.
"Look, I'm sorry, but I don't have time to play games. I stand to inherit quite a bit of money. Money I desperately need." She balled her fists at her side and steeled her voice. "I am entitled to that inheritance, and I intend to have it. My father owes me."
"What does that have to do with your being here?"
Gypsy crossed the room to stand in front of the other woman. "I can't claim any of this inheritance unless I'm married. And I have to stay married at least six months in order to get the entirety of it." She tried to smile, and felt her lips curl into what felt more like a bitter snarl. "My dad wasn't around while I was growing up. He left when I was four and we — my mother and I — never heard from him again. Until now, that is, and apparently this is his last laugh. Dangling his money in front of me like a carrot, then jerking it out of reach by attaching this ridiculous stipulation to the will."
Destiny stood and crossed her arms under her breasts. Her shoulders raised a bit, hunching towards her neck, and she shook her head. "I'm afraid I can't help you, Gypsy. I'm sorry."
Something in the matchmaker's somber gaze gripped Gypsy's heart. Sadness? Pity? Whatever it was, it curled her stomach into a tight little ball and stung the backs of her eyes with forbidden tears.
On to Sacramento, then.
She bent to pick up her purse and slipped the strap over her shoulder, and then met Destiny's gaze, which now brimmed with moisture. Oh, good heavens. Waterworks. Just what she needed.
Pretending not to notice the matchmaker's emotional reaction, Gypsy offered her hand. "I'm sorry, too. I wish we could have made it work."
To her surprise, Destiny ignored her outstretched hand and pulled her into a warm hug. "I'll pray for you, Gypsy." She stepped back and swiped at her damp cheeks with one hand. "I really w —"
"I'll do it." A deep, resonant voice interrupted, and both women spun around to face the door. "I'll marry the lady."
Gypsy sucked in a startled breath. She wasn't fond of men, but she wasn't blind, either.
This guy left "mediocre" miles behind. He lolled against the door frame as if he'd been formed for no better reason than to stand there in that position. A pair of dark, impossibly beautiful eyes narrowed as he raked her face with a piercing gaze. A lock of deep brown hair fell over his forehead, and a five o'clock shadow lent a slight rakish look, which was further defined when his precisely molded lips curved into a crooked half smile.
Gorgeous. The man was gorgeous, and he'd offered to marry her.
Maybe there was a God.CHAPTER 2
"Jal! What are you saying?"
Gypsy stood frozen as Destiny hurried across the room, pulled the hunk out of the way, and closed the door.
"I think you heard me," the stranger replied. He patted the titian-haired love mogul on the shoulder and shook his head. "Don't worry, Teeni, I know what I'm doing. Just approve the lady's application. I'll fill one out too, and we'll call this another success for Solomon's Gate."
"But —" Destiny tossed her long ponytail over her shoulder. "I don't understand, Jal. You know I can't approve this match."
"Of course you can." The newcomer turned to Gypsy and held out a slender brown hand. "Jal Garridan."
"J — Jah —" She bit her lip. "I'm sorry. I didn't quite get your name."
"Jal." He grinned, unoffended by her request. "Spelled J-A-L, but pronounced Jah-el — with two syllables. A nice little gift from my Romanian ancestors."
Romanian? She swallowed the panic that fought to be released. He wasn't a nomad with a hopeless case of wanderlust, like her dad, just because his ancestors also hailed from Romania. She put her hand into his, and was impressed with the firm grip she received. "Gypsy Lovell."
"Gypsy? That's different. I like it." He smiled right into her eyes, and she gave herself a mental kick for enjoying it. "I'm serious about what I said. We'll need to discuss a few details prior to finalizing the arrangement, but I'm certain we can work something out."
"Fine. Let's talk." This man might be a Christian — and honest — but there was nothing wimpy about him. Gypsy hoped he wasn't too hard to handle.
"First I need to have a chat with Destiny. Would you mind giving us a moment?"
She stared from the man to the matchmaker, who gnawed daintily at her bottom lip. Gypsy didn't like leaving them to discuss her without being able to hear what they had to say, but here stood a man willing to make her his wife for a few months. The sooner she got that marriage certificate, the closer she'd be to having her father's money in her hands.
She shrugged. "Sure. I'll be in the lobby."
* * *
Jal escorted Gypsy to the door and eased it shut behind her, then turned to face Destiny. He'd been friends with her brother, Jeremy, since the two of them were kids. She was doing a great job with Solomon's Gate — a tremendous job, when one considered the odds of a dating agency working out in a conservative place like Castle Creek.
But right now, Destiny was eyeing him as if he'd grown a third ear right out the tip of his chin.
"Jal, I cannot believe —"
"Hear me out before you hit me with both barrels?"
"Argh!" She clenched one small fist and waved it towards him.
Jal bit back a grin. Even mad as a little wet hen she couldn't pull off "threatening."
"Come on, Teeni. You know I wouldn't do this without a good reason." He crossed the room and poured himself a cup of coffee without asking, just as he often did in her home.
"I'm not sure there is a reason good enough." She plopped down on the striped sofa, buried her face in her hands and groaned. "I cannot let you do this."
"You know I love you, sweetie, but I'm afraid you can't stop me." Jal eased himself onto the other end of the couch and sipped at his coffee. "I'd like you to sign Gypsy's application and give us your blessing."
She peeked over her manicured fingertips to pin him beneath a scornful gaze. "Jal, surely you don't really think this is going to be all right. Gypsy is a pretty woman — gorgeous, in fact. But she is not a believer. How can you just walk in here and say you'll marry her? Besides, you don't even know why she's looking for a husband. If you did ..." She paused, and a shadow crossed her already stormy features. "Why are you here, anyway? And how did you know Gypsy's looking for a husband, not just a date, like most Seekers? Jal Garridan, were you eavesdropping out there in the hall?"
"You know me better than that. I came here to ask you to accept Gypsy's application, and to tell you that I want to marry her. I had no idea she'd be here already. Sorry about that. I had hoped to reach you before she did."
"I'm so confused," Destiny moaned. "I thought I knew you, but your actions today are — well, they're —" She huffed out a frustrated breath. "Jal, what in the world is going on?"
"Not what. Who."
"Who?" Destiny frowned, clearly confused. "Somebody encouraged you to pull this crazy stunt?"
"Yep, somebody sure did. A friend of yours, I believe."
"Well, go on, tell me who, so I can make his life miserable."
"Good luck with that, lady." Jal grinned. "I got my instructions from Solomon."
Destiny shot up off the sofa like she'd been jerked by a puppeteer's wire, then whirled around to look at him, her eyes wide with shock. "Solomon?"
"So you do know him."
"He visited you?" A slow smile morphed into a grin and wreathed her face. "Oh, wow, that's good news! He hasn't shown himself in months." She broke off and studied Jal's face. "But why would he tell you —? Jal, I can't believe he said you should marry this woman."
"Destiny." Jal patted the cushion beside him. "Do you think I would lie to you?"
She plopped back down next to him. "No, of course not, but ..." She slanted him a troubled look. "God cannot have ordained this, Jal. It's an unequal yoking together of believer and unbeliever — it goes directly against His own precepts."
Jal paused. Truth was, he didn't understand it either, but he knew what the angel had told him. "I know. But He must have a reason ... some plan that we can't see just yet. Solomon's words to me were that I should 'walk through the Gate' to find 'she whom my soul loveth.'"
Destiny's green eyes grew wide, but she said nothing, so Jal continued.
"Of course I knew immediately that I should come here, because what other 'Gate' is there around here that might lead me to a wife?" He indicated the print hanging on the opposite wall. "Besides, I knew I'd seen that scripture in here. When Solomon used it, everything just fell into place."
He gave the troubled matchmaker a playful wink, hoping to lighten her mood.
"Jal, I don't understand. Why this sudden urgency to find a wife? I didn't realize you were in such a hurry to be married."
"Well, I'm not exactly getting any younger, you know."
"That's rubbish. The truth, please."
He should have known he wouldn't be able to get anything by Destiny Gallagher. The woman had some kind of spiritual radar. Always had.
Jal sobered. "There's a little girl ... one of my patients." He hauled in a deep breath. "Her mother died a couple of months ago, and I want to adopt her, but it's near impossible for a single man to adopt a little girl." He met her gaze. "For good reasons, of course. So I need a wife."
Destiny closed her eyes and shook her head. "No, Jal." She raised her lashes and looked directly into his gaze. "You cannot get married solely for that reason."
"I'm not. Solomon told me that I would be Savannah's father. I said that I would love to be, but it didn't seem possible without a wife. That's when he said that I would have a wife. It took a week, Destiny. Every night, Solomon returned and told me more about the life we would have together." He touched her hand and waited until she met his gaze. "I know more about this than you think I do."
She still didn't look happy. "Oh, Jal. I just don't know ..."
Grinning, he made a deliberate effort to lighten the atmosphere. "Come on, Teeni. What's not to like about her? You have to admit, she's pretty easy on the eyes."
Destiny punched him on the shoulder. "Well, it's a good thing, my friend, because I have a feeling nothing else about her will be easy." She hesitated, and then raised a questioning gaze to his. "Aren't you going to ask me about Solomon?"
"What's to ask? I've always believed in angels. This is my first personal experience with one, but it's an honor and a blessing." He drained his coffee and set the mug on the table. "Someday I'd like to hear all about how Solomon came to be your personal touch of the divine, but right now ... my fiancée-to-be is waiting. Shall I call her in and make this a done deal?"
Destiny hesitated, her eyes shadowed with concern. Finally she groaned and cast him a confused, apologetic look. "I don't know, Jal. I'm still so torn. I wish Solomon had given me a sign of my own."
Jal crossed his arms over his chest. "What more do you want? You've never mentioned to me that you have an angelic spokesperson, and yet he showed up in my dream and told me I'd find my wife here at your dating agency."
Excerpted from Gypsy's Game by Delia Latham. Copyright © 2012 Delia Latham. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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