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Nicole Castleton's nerves were so tightly strung, her stomach so knotted, that she was just about to climb the walls of the exclusive Red Rock Country Club, where Marnie McCafferty's bridal shower was in full swing.
She ought to be thrilled that everything was going just as she'd plannedthe decorations, the food, the service. Even the weather, which had been gray and drizzly yesterday, had turned sunny and bright for the happy occasion. But everything else in her life was about to blow sky-high, and she needed to confide in her best friend.
As the guests milled about, sipping champagne or mimosas, Nicole glanced at her bangle wristwatch. Now was her chance.
She crossed the room, pulled the soon-to-be blushing bride aside and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Marnie, I've got a big problem, and I need to talk to youalone."
Marnie, who was going to marry Asher Fortune and become a mommy to his son, Jace, glanced at the guests, zeroing in on her future in-laws, the Atlanta Fortunes, as well as the Fortunes who called Red Rock home. Then she turned back to Nicole, her head cocked slightly. "You want to talk privately now?"
Nicole nodded. "Yes. Let's get out of here for a moment and find a place that's quiet."
As the two friends slipped off together, Nicole led the way to a side door that opened onto the patio.
When they were finally out of earshot, Marnie asked,
Nicole released a sigh before blurting out the dilemma she'd been dealing with ever since her parents had dropped the bomb on her two days ago. "I need to get marriedand fast!"
The I-couldn't-be-happier glow Marnie had been wearing ever since Asher Fortune had popped the question faded, and her brow furrowed. "Oh, no. Are you pregnant?"
As wild and impossible as that sounded, a pregnancy might actually make things easierin a way. But Marnie had connected all the wrong dots. "Of course not. I'm not even dating anyone. You know that."
"I'm sorry. It was the first thing that came to mind when you mentioned having a problem that marriage would solve. So let's slow down and take a step back.
Why on earth would you need to get married? Are you in some kind of trouble?"
Nicole was in trouble all right. "I stand to lose everything I ever wanted in lifeCastleton Boots."
"I don't understand." Marnie tucked a long strand of light brown hair behind her ear. "It's a booming company. At least, the few shares of stock I own are doing well. And you're the sole heir."
"That's what I'd always thought."
"Bottom line?" Nicole crossed her arms. "I'm being blackmailed by my manipulative parents."
"That doesn't make any sense. Your parents adore you and always have."
There was no arguing that. Nicole had been a "miracle baby," born late in life, when her parents had all but given up on having a child. So needless to say, they'd lavished her with material possessions as well as unconditional love. But apparently, they'd changed their minds and included a few "conditions" on their affections.
"They're holding Castleton Boots for ransom," Nicole explained. "They'd always said they would pass the company on to me when they retired, but apparently there are strings attached. I can't inherit the company unless I'm married."
"But that's crazy. And so unfair."
"My thoughts exactly." The family-owned company manufactured beautifully crafted cowboy boots frequently seen on the red carpet in Hollywood and on the country-western tour circuit, and the stock in question was worth a fortune. But that was beside the point.
Nicole had gone to work for the family business right out of college, but nothing had been given to her. She'd started at the bottom as a receptionist and had moved up the ranks to vice presidentand all on her own merits. Her father might spoil her in other ways, but no one got a free ride at Castleton Boots.
"Maybe they're bluffing," Marnie said.
"That's what I'd hoped. So I went to an attorneymy own, not the corporate firm. And it's legit."
Marnie paused a beat, her brow furrowed.
"You know how I feel about Castleton Boots," Nicole added. "That company is my life. I've worked my tail off to prove that I'm not just a pretty face or the CEO's daughter. And I refuse to stand by and watch them sell the business to strangers."
"So what are you going to do?"
"The only thing I can doplay by their rules. And that means I need to get marriedASAP."
"But how do you plan to pull that off? You've been so focused on work that you haven't dated anyone in agesthat is, unless you met someone in the past couple days and didn't tell me about him."
Nicole chuffed. "Yeah, right. Who has time to date? And even if I decided to make the time and take that route, it would take forever to find the right someone. And I don't want to wait on chance. I've devoted my entire life to the company, and now Dad has some chronic health problems, so he's ready to hand the reins over to someone elseanyone but me, it seems."
"Wow. Castleton Boots has been in your family for generations. You think they'd really sell it?"
"Apparently so. But that's not even the real issue here. They're afraid that they're running out of time to become grandparents, and they're trying to force me into finding a husband." Nicole blew out another sigh. "I'm so tired of my parents trying to control my life."
"Well, you can't just snag the first man who comes along and ask him to marry you."
"No, maybe not. But I have to do something. And if their little manipulation scheme backfires on them, then that's too bad. It would serve them right."
Marnie reached for Nicole's upper arm. "You're not thinking about arranging some sort of marriage of convenience to appease your parents, are you?"
"To be honest? That was my first thought. But if I came home this weekend and claimed to have met Mr. Right, it would be pretty obvious to them that the relationship was a fake. Trouble is, I have no idea where I'd find a husband fast. It's not like I can just force myself to fall in love. After all, I'd never be able to plan something like that. Love just.."
Her speech drifted off, as memories of her teenage romance with Miguel Mendoza came to mind.
Back then, her life had revolved around her studies, cheerleading and weekends riding horses and talking about boys with Marnie. But one day, her biology teacher had assigned Miguel to her study group, hoping the laid-back teen would learn a few good work habits.
The teacher, who'd also been the varsity baseball coach, had said as much when he'd introduced him to Nicole's group. "Mendoza, you need help with your study skills. And who better to show you the ropes than the top students at Red Rock High?"
Nicole hadn't been sure how adding the D student to her group would work out, since the gorgeous dark-haired boy had been labeled trouble by more than one teacher. But Miguel hadn't been a bad kid. He just enjoyed having a good time and making his friends and classmates laugh.
And to be honest, Nicole had found him just as entertaining as anyone.
After Mr. Marquez had walked away, leaving Miguel behind, Nicole had said, "Take a seat, Mendoza."
After that, Paco Ramirez and Lena Hsu had followed her lead, referring to him by his last name. But it hadn't taken the two science nerds very long to complain that Mendoza wasn't pulling his own weight.
But Nicole had begun to realize that wasn't the case. Miguel was actually struggling academically, and his goofing off wasn't because he didn't want to do the work but because he couldn't. Much of his wisecracking, sweet-talking personality was a front, and hidden inside there was a really good and deeply insecure person.
So she had taken him aside and offered to work with him one-on-one. And before that semester had ended, they had fallen in love.
As if reading her mind, Marnie eased closer. "Nicole, are you thinking about Miguel?"
Nicole would have denied it if her best friend didn't know her so well. "I admit that he momentarily crossed my mind."
Okay, so invaded her mind was more like it. That stylishly mussed dark hair, those playful brown eyes, that dazzling smile
Back in the day, she'd imagined herself head-over-heels in love with Miguel, but what did a seventeen-year-old girl know about things like forever and lifetime commitments?
"You'd better cross Miguel Mendoza off your list of potential fake husbands," Marnie said. "Even if he still lived in Red Rock and agreed to your plan, it would never work. Your parents would not only freak out if you brought him home and told them he was the one, they'd probably cut you out of the will completely."
Ten years ago, when Nicole's parents had learned that their Ivy League college-bound honor student had fallen for a young man who was practically flunking out of school, they'd thrown a walleyed fit, claiming she was dating beneath her.
Not that Miguel had been born on the wrong side of the tracks by any means. He'd grown up in a respectable, middle-class family. But the Castletons still felt he wasn't good enough for the daughter they considered a Texas princess.
So telling her parents that the two of them had reconnected and had decided to renew their romance would go over like a swarm of bees in a space suit.
But then again, for that very reason, telling them she'd reconnected with Miguel would certainly be believable, based upon how badly she'd felt following their breakup, how worried her parents had been about her.
But why wouldn't she have felt badly? Miguel had all but disappeared off the face of the earth after the night they'd split up. And even if she'd wanted to backpedal and tell him to hang in there, the Mendozas had gone to a family reunion at a beachfront hotel on the Yucatan Peninsula the following week. And when they returned to Red Rock, Miguel wasn't with them.
From what she'd heard, he'd stayed with his uncle and finished school in Mexico, eventually returning to the states and landing a job in New York City.
Nicole hadn't even seen him since the night they'd broken up, the night he'd held her in his arms one last time and told her he'd always be there for her, that if she ever needed him, he'd drop everything and
And there was the solution to her problem. The only solution, really, considering her parents' demand and the ticking clock.
"Uh-oh." Marnie grabbed Nicole's arm. "I can practically see those cogs turning in your brain. What are you plotting?"
"A plan so wild that it just might work." As a slow smile spread across Nicole's face, her mood lifted. "Rather than trying to conjure up a believable fiance and spin a yarn about how we fell in love at first sight, I can tell them I'm marrying for loveand they won't be able to dispute it."
"What are you talking about?" Marnie asked, arching a brow.
"I'm going to marry Miguel Mendoza."
"You've got to be kidding."
"Not at all. It's the only way outand it's perfect. I'll get my company by following the letter of the law. The attorney assured me that the document doesn't put any restrictions on who I can marry, only that the marriage has to be legitimate."
All she had to do was get Miguel to agree to a limited marriage of convenience. She'd pay him handsomely for his time, of course. All he had to do was act as if he was still in love with her.
"Assuming that Miguel would even go along with something that wacky," Marnie said, "you'd have to find him first. And what if he's married or seriously involved with someone?"
"Actually, I know right where to find him. He works for a record company in New York City. And he's not married or seriously involved."
"How do you know?"
"Because I kept tabs on him over the past ten years through the Red Rock grapevine."
The real question was, would she be able to convince Miguel to go along with her plan? He'd definitely moved on with his life, but had he forgotten what they'd once felt for each other?
Would he honor the promise he'd made her?
Or would he think the whole thing was stupid?
"Listen," Marnie said, "I really have to get back to my guests. We can talk more about this later."
"Of course." Talk about cogs spinning, Nicole's mind had slipped into overdrive with all she needed to do to put her plan in action. "I'll be right behind you, Marnie. Just give me a minute."
After her friend went back to the country club garden room, where the white-linen-draped tables had been adorned with crystal rose bowls holding lush red blooms, Nicole lingered on the patio a moment longer, feeling better than she had in days. She finally had an amazing solution to her problem.
She would fly to New York tomorrow and present the offer to Miguel in person at Home Run Records, where he worked.
He might not be up for the ruse, but there was one thing to be said about Miguel. He was an honorable man. And she had every intention of reminding him of the very last thing he'd said to her, the promise he'd made her.
If you ever need me, all you have to do is say the word. And I'll be there for you.
Well, the day had come when Nicole needed Miguel. And she needed him now.
Locked away in his office at Home Run Records, Miguel Mendoza sat back in his desk chair and stretched, arching his cramped shoulders and back.
He'd been scanning sales reports and making notes all morning, preparing for a meeting with the marketing department. Company profits had dropped over the last quarter, and it was up to him to lay out a plan to turn things around.
He was an ace at problem solving and had already come up with a few ideas. In fact, that's why the CEO had come to him days ago and offered him a promotion if he'd take a desk job.
But Miguel hated being confined to an office. As a sales exec, he ran a lot of PR events across the country and rarely stayed in one place for very long. The fast pace kept things interesting for him, if not exciting. So that's why he'd turned down the promotion, even if it would have helped him sock away more money for the nightclub he planned to open someday.
He rolled his chair back from the desk and got to his feet. For some reason, being cooped up behind four walls bothered him more today than usual, and he was eager to get that meeting out of the way and to take off for the rest of the day.
Outside, on the city street, several horns blared. Most New Yorkers ignored the common sound, but Miguel, who'd been prone to distraction, especially in school, made his way to the window and spotted a stalled vehicle in the intersection below. For a moment, he watched the midday traffic, the rush of people making their way to and from the subway station.