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"No way. Sorry, Travis, I just can't marry you." Julie O'Hara leaned against the closed door and kept her voice pitched loud enough so that it would carry to the man on the other side.
Clearly, he heard her.
"Oh, yes you can," he said, and even through the door, his voice was all steely determination. "Now cut the dramatics and open the damn door."
Julie's head dropped back against the door and she rolled her eyes to look at the high, beamed ceiling. Sunlight slanted in through the windows across the room and the golden wash from the sun created shadows on the walls that looked eerily like the bars on a cell.
She didn't think so.
This was a huge mistake. She knew it down to her bones. The bad feeling that had been taking root inside her for the last month had suddenly blossomed into big, black flowers. Ooh, there was an image.
"Travis, think about this for a minute."
"Not really the time for any more thinking, Julie," he said. "The guests are here, the minister's waiting and we are getting married."
Her stomach did a slow pitch and roll and she clenched her teeth together and took a few deep breaths through her nose. Didn't really help. How in the heck had she gotten herself into this? Julie's eyes flew open when Travis King's knuckles rapped on the door again and she looked around the room with a frantic gaze, futilely searching for an escape route.
But there wasn't one and she knew it. She was trapped in this plush guest room in Travis's castlelike house on the King Vineyard. Just like the rest of the house, it was gorgeous, elegant and so far away from her ordinary world she felt like a servant girl who'd sneaked into the mistress's room to try on her clothes. Bad, bad feeling. And it was all her own fault.
She'd walked into this stupid situation with her eyes wide open. "Idiot."
"Open the door, Julie ."
"It's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding," she said.
"Uh-huh. Don't think that matters so much in our case, so open up."
Of course their case was special. Because this wasn't your ordinary, everyday wedding.
It had all seemed so simple a month ago, she thought and instantly remembered just how she'd gotten to this place in her life.
"I need a wife," Travis had said. "You need a future. It's perfect."
Julie had looked at him, sitting across from her in a red vinyl booth at Terri's Diner in the heart of downtown Birkfield, California. In a small town, the diner was the one place where everyone eventually showed up. Julie had practically grown up sliding across the red vinyl seats.
Her first date had brought her here. She'd nursed her first broken heart over four double-chocolate shakes. And now she was getting a marriage proposal here.
Shouldn't there be a plaque?
"It's not perfect," she argued, thinking that at least one of them had to be logical here. Travis had always been more impulsive than shewell, except for that one time when she'd married a man she thought loved her, only to find out too late that he hadn't. See where impulsiveness had gotten her?
Firmly, she said, "There's an easier solution, Travis. Just go find another distributor for your wines."
He shook his head, dark brown hair flopping across his forehead in a way that made her want to reach across the table and smooth it back for him. She resisted. "Can't. Thomas Henry is the best and you know I never settle for less than the best."
True, he never had. Travis had grown up as a member of one of the wealthiest, most powerful families in the state. He'd long ago grown accustomed to being on top. Being number one. And there was nothing Travis cared for more than King Vineyards. Ever since taking it over from his late father, he'd put in the time and effort required to make King wines known all over California.
Now he'd set his sights on not only distribution countrywide, but also eventually international exports, as well. Apparently, Thomas Henry was key to Travis's plan for world domination.
"Okay, but you don't have to marry me to get him."
"No." He sat back in the booth seat with a disgusted scowl on his face. "I don't. I could marry one of Henry's hideous daughters instead. I told you, Julie. The guy's kind of eccentric. He's a self-made millionaire and now his big goal in life is to get his girls married. I'm single. Rich. Therefore, I'm prime husband material."
She smiled. "He can't force you to marry one of his daughters. This isn't the Middle Ages."
"I wouldn't put it past him to try." Travis smiled wryly. "But if I turn down his 'darlings,' he canand willrefuse to handle my wines. I can't risk that. King Vineyards is poised for the next big step. Getting the distribution deal with Henry would put me on the right path. All I need to make it all happen is a temporary wife. If I'm already married, he won't be tossing his daughters at my feet, will he?"
He grinned and Travis smiling was pretty spectacular. She'd had a crush on him when she was a kid. But then, Travis was gorgeous, charming and his smile had been known to melt a woman's resistance at fifty feet. Good thing Julie was immune. All it had taken was marrying a jerk and being dumped. Just because she could admire Travis's smile didn't mean she was going to turn into a puddle of mush at his feet.
"A couple of reasons," he was saying and Julie listened up. "First, because we know each other and I know you need this, too. Second, because I trust you to stick to our agreement and not try to bleed me for extra cash."
She knew he was wary of most women because King men attracted gold diggers in greater numbers than the gold rush had back in the day. "But if I marry you, what makes me different from any of those other women? I'll still be marrying you for your money."
"Yeah, but on my terms," he said with a smile.
Hmm. He might think that was funny, but she didn't see the humor. Julie watched women throw themselves at Travis for years. And all of them had had one eye on his exceptional behind and the other eye on his bank account. If she allowed him to pay her to marry him, wasn't she just another member of a very large, mercenary crowd?
Julie groaned inwardly and sucked at her chocolate shake. When tumultuous times struck, always have chocolate handy. A good rule of thumb for life's little miseries. She didn't like the idea of people thinking she was after his money.
"I don't want or need a husband," she pointed out, even though she distinctly felt herself losing the battle.
"Maybe not, but you do need the money to start that bakery you've always wanted."
True. God, she hated that he was right. She'd been working like a dog and saving every spare dime for years and still she was light years from having enough money put away to open her own bakery. She couldn't get a loan because she had no collateral, and if things stayed as they were, she'd be at retirement age before she could afford her dream shop.
But was that any reason to get married?
Hadn't she turned down Travis's offer of a loan before this? She'd known him her whole life. Her mom had been the cook on the King ranch until she'd married the gardener and hung up her apron when Julie was twelve. As kids, Julie and Travis had been friends. That had lasted until high school, when Julie'd first heard the laughter about the rich kid hanging out with the nobody. Their friendship had gradually cooled down, but they'd remained "friendly."
Now that they were grown, they weren't exactly close anymore, but the memory of that friendship was strong enough that Julie hadn't wanted to borrow money from him and muddy up their relationship.
Wasn't marrying him even worse?
"It's one year, Julie," Travis said, tapping his fingertips impatiently against the white Formica tabletop. "One year and I'll have the distribution deal I want and I give you financial backing in the bakery. Everybody wins."
"I don't know ." She still wasn't convinced. And it wasn't just the thought of marrying for money that had her hesitating, though heaven knew, it should have been enough. Nope, there was something else bothering her as well. "And when the marriage ends, that would leave me a two-time divorcée."
How tacky was that? God, thirty years old and a two-time loser? Oh, if she could step back in time a year or two, she'd avoid Jean Claude Doucette like the plague. Unfortunately, she couldn't do that and that French rat was going to remain a part of her past forever.
"Yeah, but that first marriage lasted what? Two weeks? It hardly counts," Travis argued. "Besides, who cares?"
"Don't see why. So you made a mistake. Big deal. You wised up, got a divorce "
Yeah, she thought, after Jean Claude dumped her and arranged for a quickie Mexican divorce.
"Put it behind you, move on," Travis finished. "Anyway, he was French."
"And, I offered to beat the crap out of him for you," Travis reminded her.
"I know." She really liked having Travis as a friend. Was she ready for that to change? "And I appreciate it."
"So then marry me already."
"What would your family say? Oh, God, what would my mother say?" she wondered aloud, knowing even as she asked it that he'd have a ready answer. This is coming out of nowhere and"
"Hell," Travis said on a laugh. "They'll understand. We tell my family and yours the truth of the situation, but no one else. And let's remember how Gina and Adam got married last year, huh? It's not like this idea has never been thought of before."
"Yes ." Travis's brother Adam had married his neighbour Gina for all the wrong reasons, but their marriage had turned into something wonderful. Now Gina was pregnant and Adam was walking around looking like the emperor of the world. "But Travis "
"No one but our families know the whole truth, though," he insisted, leaning across the table to look directly into her eyes. "This has got to look real, Julie. To everybody. Thomas Henry needs to believe it. So we'll play the perfect married couple. We can do it. It's only a year."
A year. A year with Travis as her husband. Oh, God, she was weakening and she knew it. Visions of a bakery with her name over the door were dancing before her eyes. Then something else occurred to her.
"What about "
"You know." When he just stared at her, she blew out a breath. "Sex?"
"Oh." He frowned for a minute or two, then shook his head. "No problem. Married in name only. I swear. Trust me, I can resist you."
"Gee, thanks. Don't I feel special."
"Besides, it's only a year." He said it again as if trying to convince not only her, but also himself, that they could do this. "How hard could it be?"
She hadn't expected to get married again. Ever. Jean Claude ensured that she'd never trust any man that completely again. But this was different. It wasn't as if she was going into this marriage all starry-eyed, expecting love to last a lifetime. This was business, plain and simple. And if she was going to do it, why not marry a friend? A man who didn't expect anything from her? A man who was going to help her make her dreams come true at the end of one tiny, tiny, year.
"So what do you say?" he prompted.
"Okay," she'd said on a sigh. "Yes, I'll marry you."
"Idiot," Julie said again the memory fading. She was back in the guest room, wearing an ivory wedding dress and trying to find a way to successfully chicken out.
"Damn it, Julie," Travis implored from the other room and she heard the banked temper in his voice.
"Open the damn door so we can talk about this."
She shot a look into the mirror behind her and then tossed the lacy edge of her veil over her shoulder. Steeling herself, she took a breath and flipped the dead bolt. Travis opened the door a second later and moved into the room, closing the door behind him.
He looked amazing, of course. The bridegroom of every woman's fantasy. He wore an elegantly tailored black suit with a crisp white shirt and a bold red tie. His dark brown hair was swept back from his face and his chocolate brown eyes were pinned on her. In an instant, he looked her up and down. "You look gorgeous."
"Thanks." She looked the part of a bride, even if she didn't feel like it. Her dark red hair was piled up on top of her head, with a few careless ringlets pulled free to lay against her neck. The lace-edged veil was elbow length and tickled her bare shoulders. Her floor-length gown flowed around her in a soft cloud of gossamer fabric. Strapless, the gown dipped low over her bosom and hugged her narrow waist. She knew she looked goodshe only wished she felt as good as she looked.
"I don't think I can do it, Travis," she admitted and laid the flat of her hand against a stomach that was spinning and churning with nerves.
"Oh, you're going to do it," Travis told her and took her shoulders in a hard grip. "We've got a garden full of guests out there and the musicians are tuning up. Reporters are standing out on the drive and security just caught a photographer sneaking in over the paddock fence."
"Oh, God ." He'd always been a favorite of the paparazzi. They followed him everywhere, taking pictures of Travis with whatever woman happened to be hanging on his arm. It just hadn't occurred to Julie that now she'd be a photographer's target. Her whole life was about to change and she wasn't sure she could go through with it.
"You're just nervous."