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"Sit." Kate Nichols took one look at her best friend's face and pointed to an empty booth by the window. "I'll be right back with a piece of pie."
"Just bring the whole thing." Abby Porter's sigh stirred the wisps of honey-blond hair on her forehead. "And a fork."
Kate shot her a sympathetic look. "That bad, huh?"
"Let's put it this wayfor the past twenty-four hours I've been seriously contemplating a destination wedding," Abby said darkly.
"Mmm. Could be fun," Kate mused. "What's the destination?"
"Oh, possibly a tent in the middle of the Sahara. Maybe a remote tropical island." Abby's silver-green eyes narrowed. "Jupiter."
Kate tried not to smile as she retrieved a piece of triple berry pie from the revolving dessert case near the cash register and topped it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
She set the plate and a carafe of fresh coffee down on the table in front of Abby before sliding into the opposite side of the booth. "Interesting choices but I'm not sure I see a pattern. What's the criteria?"
"There's only one," Abby admitted as she attacked the pie. "Somewhere my brother can't find me."
Kate suppressed a smile. "I hate to be the one who breaks this to you, but I'm pretty sure the 'tent in the Sahara' thing won't work."
"Because Alex probably holds stock in some high-tech spy satellite. He'd track you down in no time."
Abby frowned as she considered that. "Scratch that one, then. Tropical island?"
"Definitely a no go unless you're willing to choose a new maid of honor. My hair and humidity are sworn enemies." To prove her point, Kate tweaked a flame-colored curl that seemed to have doubled in size since she'd unlocked the door of the Grapevine Cafe at six o'clock that morning. "Not to mention that Alex has a yacht."
"You're right." The words tumbled out with Abby's sigh. "I guess that leaves Jupiter."
"Uh-uh." Kate leaned forward and lowered her voice a notch. "He owns it."
"Kate!" Abby choked back a laugh.
Kate simply looked at her.
"Okay, because there's a slightvery slight, mind youchance that you're right, I'll take Jupiter off the list, too," Abby grumbled.
"And several other planets in the solar system," Kate said under her breath. They shared a grin.
"All right." Abby gave up. "It looks like I'm back to where I started. Getting married at the inn."
Which was, Kate knew, exactly the place that Abby and her fiance, Quinn O'Halloran, wanted to exchange their vows.
Shortly after the couple announced their engagement, Alex Porter had done his best to persuade Abby to hold the wedding in the grand ballroom of a swanky Chicago hotel. One ofcount themfour swanky hotels the Porter family happened to own in the midwest.
It was clear the wealthy executive didn't think that a small ceremony and outdoor reception were good enough for his only sibling.
If she were Abby, Kate would be contemplating Jupiter, too. Either that or sending the guy on a one-way trip to the moon.
Not, Kate thought, that it would do any good. The man possessed both the ways and means to find his way back.
Alex Porter was nothing if not resourceful. Creatively, ingeniously and, yes, sometimes even scarily resourceful.
He'd proven that the previous summer when he'd secretly hired Quinn O'Halloran, a local security systems expert and former bodyguard, to keep an eye on Abby when she'd moved to Mirror Lake.
Kate had found out the whole story after she and Abby became friends. How Alex had hoped his sister would give up what he considered to be a foolish dreamturning an old Bible camp on the lake into a bed-and-breakfastand return to Chicago where she belonged. How the plan had backfired when Abby and Quinn fell in love.
Abby had patiently held her ground over the past few months when her brother made his opinions known, but Kate had doled out enough slices of pie to know it wasn't always easy. For all Alex Porter's bossy ways, the two siblings were close and Abby hated to be at odds with him. In spite of their obvious differences, Abby talked about her older brother with exasperated but genuine affection.
Kate totally understood the exasperation. The affection, not so much.
Secretly, she figured the bond between them had more to do with Abby's sweet, generous nature and her strong faith rather than some unseen quality that might lay buried like a vein of gold in the heart that beat beneath Alex Porter's Armani suit.
"So what is big brother's problem now?" Kate asked as she filled two coffee mugs to the brim. "The wedding is less than a week away. There can't be anything left at risk for a hostile takeover."
"You'd be surprised," Abby muttered.
Kate silently scrolled through the list of wedding details she knew Alex had taken issue with. "Is he still upset that Jessica and Tony will be running the inn while you're gone?"
"It was hard for Alex to give up one of his favorite managers and head pastry chef for two weeks, but he hasn't said anything about that for a while. Probably because he knows they'll do a great job." Abby smiled. "Jessica plans to cut back to part-time until she has the baby but she insists that taking over my kitchen will feel like a vacation. And Tony is hoping to do a little fishing when he isn't manning the desk."
"So Tony and Jessica are safe." Relieved, Kate mentally crossed that one off her list and went onto the next one. "He doesn't approve of your decision to carry a bouquet of wild-flowers so he hired his personal florist to change your mind?"
"He doesn't have a " Abby paused. "Never mind. But, no, I'm happy to report that my Queen Anne's lace and daisies are safe at the moment."
"So what is it now?"
"He thinks oh, it doesn't matter." To Kate's astonishment, Abby's smile faded and she averted her gaze. "You know Alex."
Kate didn't. Not really. She had only met the man once, a year ago, when he'd driven up in a silver Viper to check on Abby and make one last-ditch effort to convince her to leave Mirror Lake.
But because Abby talked about her brother a lot, Kate felt as if she knew him. And what she knewother than the fact that Alex Porter oozed confidence out of every pore and happened to be quite unfairly, in Kate's opinion, drop-dead gorgeousdidn't impress her very much. As far as she was concerned, Alex tried to control peoples' lives the same way he did his hotels. With a lift of one autocratic eyebrow. That it seemed to work for the guy was another cause for irritation.
"Well, he must have said something or you wouldn't be threatening to elope five days before your wedding," Kate pointed out.
"It's nothing to be concerned about, really. Alex had some questions about the reception dinner," Abby finally admitted.
"It's all set. You and Quinn approved the menu. I have everything ready " Kate stopped. Something in Abby's expression set off warning bells in her head.
Alex Porter didn't have questions. He had doubts. Doubts that a woman who operated a small cafe had the ability to cater his sister's wedding reception.
"He doesn't think I can do it." Kate wasn't sure why, but the thought stung.
"That's not it," Abby said quickly. "Alex just wondered whether you had the time to act as my maid of honor and handle the food for the reception."
No doubt he wondered more than that, Kate thought grimly. But just because the Porter hotels boasted award-winning restaurants didn't mean they were the only ones capable of creating a memorable reception dinner.
"I told Alex that I trust you completely," Abby continued. "Not only are you the queen of multitasking, you're a wonderful cook."
Kate was touched by her friend's loyalty, but Alex's assumption still rankled. She was forced to take her own advice when it came to dealing with stressful situations. Keep your sense of humor.
"So what does he think is on the menu? Hamburgers and French fries?" Kate even managed a weak laugh. Abby joined in. Sort of.
Kate's mouth dropped open. "He thinks that all I'm capable of making are hamburgers and French fries?"
"Not really," Abby murmured. Unfortunately, the look in her eyes flashed the words "yes, really."
Kate could feel the freckles on the bridge of her nose start to glow. "He thinks the Grapevine is a greasy spoon."
"It doesn't matter what Alex thinks." Abby's chin lifted. "He's never eaten at the cafe."
So, yes! A greasy spoon!
"I told him that you've won awards at the county fair " Kate stifled a groan. She knew her friend meant well, but a first-place ribbon for her triple berry pie and sour apple salsa wasn't going to impress someone like Alex. " and just because the cafe is small, it doesn't mean that you deep-fry everything and sling hash"
"Hash?" Kate squawked.
"Maybe he didn't say hash." Abby bit her lip.
The familiar gesture, the one Kate saw whenever Abby was trying to find a tactful way to say somethingor not to say somethingonly led to one conclusion.
He'd said hash.
Abby must have recognized the look on her face. "Don't change your mind about catering the reception," she pleaded.
"Alex will eat everything you prepare, and he'll love it. I promise."
The corners of Kate's lips curved in a slow smile. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not going to change my mind."
Because Alex Porter would eat everything she prepared for the reception dinner and a generous helping of crow, as well.
Those were Abby's orders.
But Alex had found a loophole. His sister had been talking about her wedding day. If he arrived in town a few days early, technically those orders hadn't taken effect yet.
The truth was, Alex Porter didn't particularly care for orders unless he was the one giving them. And he didn't care for orders issued by his kid sister, either.
Not, Alex grudgingly admitted to himself, that Abby was a kid. Not anymore. But it was hard not to think of her as the fragile, introverted girl he'd single-handedly raised after their parents died while returning home from a business trip.
One phone call from a sheriff's deputy that night had changed the course of Alex's life. At the age of twenty-two and six weeks shy of obtaining his bachelor's degree, he had inherited the family estate, two hotels and the guardianship of his fourteen-year-old sister.
After the funeral, an attorney recommended that Alex "liquidate all the assets" in order to "disengage from the weighty responsibilities" that had been placed on him. Alex interpreted the 'liquidating of all assets' as polite legalese for disposing of the two hotels his parents had poured twenty years of their blood, sweat and tears into making a success. The "weighty responsibilities?" His only sibling.
He had dismissed the lawyer's advice. And the lawyer.
There'd been little time to grieve as he took charge of the business and Abby, the only other remaining member of the Porter family. Over the years, Alex had done everything in his power to protect them both.
That's why Abby's decision to walk away from the family businessand, if Alex were completely honest, from himthe previous summer had been a difficult one to accept.
Alex realized now that he should have taken his sister a little more seriously when she claimed she had to follow God's plan for her life. Whatever that meant. It was fine with him if people chose to look to God for direction, but Alex preferred to make his own plans.
But because he hadn't paid attention, Abby had decided to follow the old adage "actions speak louder than words" to prove her point. A point Alex still thought she could have made without turning in her letter of resignation and buying a rundown lodge in northern Wisconsin.
He figured that Abby would get married one day, but he'd always assumed he would have a little more input about the details. Like who she married. And when. And where.
At the very least, he assumed she would agree to hold the ceremony in Porter Lakeside's grand ballroom, surrounded by friends who moved within their social circle. But no. Abby had insisted on a simple wedding at the inn she'd opened; the guest list comprised a small group of people Alex didn't even know.
His fingers tightened around the leather steering wheel as a gap suddenly opened in the wall of trees and revealed the small town his sister now considered home.
There was nothing special about the place that he could see. Certainly nothing special enough to tempt a person to turn their back on everything the Windy City had to offer.
He cruised down the narrow, paved walkway called Main Street. The large pots of marigolds stationed at the foot of each streetlamp must have been part of a community beautification project of some kind.
Too bad it had failed.
A hardware store with hand-printed signs in the window advertised a two-for-one sale on garden hoses. Alex shook his head. Hadn't these people heard of underground sprinkler systems? Next door, the plate glass windows of the variety store proudly displayed a blinding array of cheap sun catchers.
Alex decided it would serve Abby right if she received a dozen of the things as wedding gifts.
His gaze shifted to the third brick building in the lineup and snagged on a faded sign above the door.
The Grapevine Cafe.
Jerking the Viper to the right, Alex's foot tapped the brake so the vehicle wouldn't jump the curb and take out a pot of marigolds.
He cut the engine and stared at the old-fashioned diner in disbelief. Call him crazy, but for some reason, he'd pictured something with a little more curbside appeal. Something a little bigger.
"What are you thinking, Abby?" he muttered. This was taking her friendship with the owner of the cafeKate Nicholstoo far.
A memory, one that had lodged deep in his subconscious like a splinter, shifted and poked him again.
Almost a year ago, when he'd shown up at Abby's bed-and-breakfast to make one final appeal for her to come home, he'd walked right into the middle of a renovation party. Alex had confronted the first person he sawa young woman with a cap of flame-colored curls and eyes as green as a field of fresh cloverand asked where he could find Abby. Instead of taking him to his sister, the pixie had had the audacity to lead him to a dilapidated cabin down by the lake instead. Then she'd pressed a hammer into his hand, pointed to the roof and told him to "make himself useful."
He hadn't appreciated being told what to do. Especially by a petite, redheaded firecracker.