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Very late. And the driveway to "The Oaks" was like one of those country roads that go on and on interminably and never arrive anywhere. With a sigh of impatience Devon Fraser wiped the perspiration from her forehead and tried to relax her neck muscles. Just to add to everything else that had gone wrong, she was - and had been for the last fifteen minutes - trapped in a line of limousines and chauffeur-driven Cadillacs occupied by wedding guests who were all early for the wedding. Early and fastidiously attired in formal suits and designer dresses.
Devon was driving her bright red Mazda convertible with the top down and she was wearing the same outfit she'd put on twenty-four hours ago to leave Yemen. A modestly styled and not very becoming green linen suit - now much crumpled - a blouse with a high neck, and undistinguished green pumps that were killing her feet.
No make-up. Almost no sleep. And absolutely no joy at the prospect of the next few hours.
It was her mother's wedding she was late for. Her mother's fifth wedding, to be accurate. This time to a man called Benson Holt. A wealthy man with a son named Jared, of whom Alicia, so she'd said, was terrified. Jared was to be best man to Devon's maid-of-honor.
Devon had spent the last four days in negotiation with some very rich oil barons. She wasn't about to be intimidated by a Toronto playboy called Jared Holt.
The wedding was scheduled for six p.m. and it was now five past five; she'd had to wait for several minutes to pass through the wrought-iron security gates at the entrance to Benson Holt's property. It was going to take a small miracle, thought Devon, to get her to "The Oaks" and transform herself in less than an hour from a bedraggled dowd to a glowing maid-of-honor. All maids-of-honor glowed, didn't they? Or was that the bride?
Devon didn't know. She'd never been a bride and had no inclination to change that state of affairs. She could safely leave being a bride to her mother.
Venerable oak trees lined the driveway, the grass was velvet-smooth and all the fences - miles of fences - were painted a pristine white. The prospective groom was indeed rich. Surprise, surprise, Devon thought sardonically. While her mother was a professed romantic, Alicia had yet to marry a poor man.
Through the fences Devon could see open fields and placid groups of mares and foals, and for a moment she forgot how unforgivably late she was. She'd remembered to throw her riding gear into her suitcase in the ten-minute stop she'd allowed herself at her condo in Toronto. At least she might get one pleasurable experience out of this wedding. A ride on a thoroughbred.
Because she was, of course, dreading the wedding. With a jangling of her nerves, she saw that the lane was widening into a expanse of groomed shrubs and statuary around a circular driveway. The house was an imposing mansion of Georgian brick with a great many shutters and chimneys. Ignoring the directions of the two uniformed men who were waving the cars to a parking area under the trees, Devon whipped out of the line-up, skidded to a halt not twenty feet from the front door and scrambled out, reaching into the back seat for her case and the long plastic bag that held her dresses.
Every muscle in her body ached. She felt like hell. And looked worse.
She ran for the front door. It was flanked by polished coachman's lanterns and was painted a rich dark green. As she reached for the bell, the door swung open.
"Well," a man's voice said mockingly, "the late Miss Fraser."
Devon tucked a stray blond curl into what had been, twenty-four hours ago, a sleek and well-mannered hairdo. "I'm Devon Fraser, yes," she said. "Would you please direct me to my room? I'm in a hurry."
The man was standing in the shadow of the door. Insolently he looked her up and down, from her windblown hair all the way to her dusty and unexciting pumps. "Very late," he added.
Her brief assumption that this was a rather unconventional butler was just that: brief. The man blocking her entrance into the house had never in his life been the servant of others. No, he was the type who gave out the orders, and expected them, unless she was mistaken, to be instantly obeyed.
And then he stepped into the late-afternoon sunlight and for the first time she really saw him. Her eyes widened. Her heart began to hammer in her chest.
A butler? Was she crazy? He was the most magnificent specimen of manhood she'd ever seen.
Tall, dark and handsome didn't begin to describe him. Certainly he was tall, several inches taller than her five-feet-ten, a fact that instantly irritated her beyond all proportion. His hair was black, his eyes dark as volcanic rock, and for a moment, her imagination working overtime, she saw him as a man who would trail devastation in his wake and bring her only sorrow.
Oh, stop it, Devon! Dozens of men have black hair and dark eyes. Get a grip.
As for handsome, his features were too strong, too infused with sheer male energy, for the word to have much meaning. He was handsome in the same way a polar bear was handsome, she thought. Take one look and run for your life.
Adding to her unease, his expensively tailored tuxedo and crisp white shirt - civilized and sophisticated attire - made him look dangerous rather than civilized, untamed rather than sophisticated. Certainly they did nothing to disguise his breadth of shoulder and depth of chest, his flat belly and lean hips.
He had a beautiful body. Lots of men had great bodies. But this man exuded male magnetism through his very pores. What woman worthy of the name could resist him?
This one, she thought frantically. Me. What on earth was going on here? She made it a policy never to be affected by a man's looks or sexual charisma, a policy that had served her well over the years. Kept her from making mistakes like the ones her mother had made. So why was she now slavering over the man in the doorway? Who was, moreover, making her even later for the wedding.
Okay, Devon, calm down, she told herself. You're exhausted and wired all at the same time, you'd rather be in the Kalahari Desert than attending a wedding at "The Oaks," and your imagination's gone on a rampage. A man trailing devastation? Come off it! Sure, his face is much too roughly molded to be called handsome, far too tough and full of determination to be dismissed by any label as facile as playboy. Who cares?
I don't. But she was certain of one thing. Certain in her bones. The man standing by the glossy green front door was the intimidating Jared Holt. Considerably less inclined to blame her mother for being afraid of him, Devon finally found her voice. "And who might you be?" she asked coolly.
Ignoring her question, he said in a deep baritone as smooth as expensive brandy, "I was hoping you wouldn't turn up at all. So this fiasco of a wedding might at least be postponed."
"Too bad," Devon said. "I'm here." Proud of how normal she sounded, she kept to herself the fact that she too thought of the fast-approaching nuptials as a fiasco. "I presume you're Jared Holt?"
He nodded, making no attempt to shake hands. "You're not at all what I was expecting - your mother keeps raving on about how beautiful you are."
"Dear me," Devon said, "you really don't want my mother and me in the family, do you?"
"You got that right."
"Any more than I want you and your father in mine."
His jaw hardened; it was an extremely determined jaw. "So why didn't you miss your plane from Yemen, Miss Fraser? I don't think your mother would have gone through with the ceremony if you weren't here. You could have scotched the whole thing. At least temporarily."
"Unfortunately," Devon said with icy precision, "I don't see my role in life as my mother's keeper. She may well be intent on making another ill-judged marriage. But she's also over the age of consent. As is your father."
"So you've got claws. How interesting. They don't go with the outfit." And in another of those scathing glances he took in her rumpled linen suit and loose-fitting blouse.
Excerpted from Jared's Love-Child by Sandra Field
Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted February 12, 2011
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