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The early-morning sun warmed Lilli Barclay's shoulders as she stood in front of the Cypress Pointe Historical Society building, arms full of charity event files she'd just received from the secretary. She'd have to finish the job sooner rather than later, but later sounded so much better. Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath before speaking into her cell phone.
"Does this have to be done today?" she asked her mother, Celeste, who had taken off to deal with another one of Aunt Marian's legal issues instead of staying here in Florida to coordinate her latest fund-raiser. "I have a full schedule at work."
"He's the only groom who hasn't given me an answer. He's perfect, Lilli. The ladies will adore him, and the model will love walking arm in arm with him down the aisle."
"I could just call him. I've already missed more hours from work than I can afford with this fund-raiser."
Lilli had recently found, and hoped to sign on, a new client for the marketing firm where she worked. A project that would not only be a profitable account, but would land her the coveted promotion she'd been working toward. She loved research and the creative part of marketing, but she really wanted to work directly with the customers as an account executive.
The job entailed finding new customers and maintaining relationships while catering to their advertising needs. To climb up the corporate ladder, she'd worked long hours and made herself available to the point of having no social life. Since her five-year plan had gotten derailed a year ago, she'd started over with a new plan to get her life on track, and this promotion would be the first step in that direction.
She wasn't a shoo-in, especially with two other people in the office actively seeking the same promotion. The first, Nate, had a few more years' experience than Lilli. Definite competition. The other, a woman who had recently been hired, was new to marketing. A long shot. Still, Lilli took nothing for granted.
Filling in as charity coordinator for her mother didn't fit the plan, but her mother had sounded desperate. Lilli hadn't been able to say no. Never had. Only now her mother's request might very well get in the way of this promotion.
"You know I wouldn't ask if it weren't an emergency."
Yes, she knew that. For as long as Lilli could remember, her mother had been involved in some type of charity activity. She'd spend weeks on a project, leaving Lilli to snatch a few hours of quality time here and there, and even then, her mother would be preoccupied. That meant a lot of time alone. But how could she be upset with her mother when the woman did so much good for others? And how could Lilli not help when her mother asked? Since her parents' divorce, it seemed like the only connection they shared.
"So you'll take care of this for me?" her mother asked.
Procrastinating, Lilli opened the thick file in her hand and narrowly avoided spilling the collection of papers. Her gaze stopped on the top line of the official invitation: Tie the KnotA Montage of Vintage Bridal Fashions Through the Decades, to be held at the prestigious Cypress Pointe Country Club. Bad enough her mother had asked her to fill in as coordinator for this event in her absence, but the country club? How could Lilli ever set foot in that place again?
She scanned the list given to her by the historical society secretary. She loved lists, herself, so she felt a degree of relief that she didn't have to start from scratch. Everything from timetables, committees and local businesses supporting the show to couples serving as models were listed. Each woman would wear a bridal dress, either from her family legacy or donated by a member of the historical society. A clever idea. One of her mother's best.
But a wedding-themed benefit? Lilli cringed. She'd put visions of silk and lace, cake and fondant, and happily ever after out of her mind this past year. Getting dumped at the rehearsal dinner made a girl leery of wedding dreams.
And still, the worst part of her duties lay moments ahead of her: getting an answer from the final volunteer groom on her mother's list. A groom not obligated to marry his paired bride. Wouldn't that be a dream come true for any guy? No commitment and a bunch of fun? The participants were local businesspeople or town elite, except for the last man in question. He had recently set up shop in town. Celeste had yet to pin down a definite yes from the man. Apparently he'd been dodging her calls. So, today, the recruitment duties fell to Lilli.
She closed the file and stuffed it into her purse. She'd go through it later. Right now, she had historical society business to take care of before she could get back to ensuring her promising future at KLC Media Enterprises.
"Yes, I'll take care of it, but I'm going to call his office," she said, decision made.
"That won't do any good."
"Every time I call, his secretary tells me he's out."
"Maybe that's because he is out. After all, he is a " Lilli shuffled through the purse again until she found another file. Her stomach dropped when she read his name. "Max Sanders. Private investigator?"
"Yes, dear. I mentioned to you that I'd hired someone to take care of the security system at the historical society office. It's in the information I left behind."
Lilli stared down at the familiar name. It couldn't be, could it? He'd left town years ago. How many Max Sanderses could there be?
"You'll have to go to his office and ask in person."
Oh, boy. Her mother had to know how sticky this would be. Why would she even consider him as a volunteer groom in light of their history? The Max Sanders she'd met twelve years ago would not be happy to see her, let alone agree to anything she asked. She'd be lucky he didn't kick her out of his office right from the get-go.
"You do remember who Max is, don't you, Mom?"
"Of course. So I had him thoroughly vetted." Ironic, her mother hiring a P.I. to do a background check on a P.I. "Lilli, please. This is important."
"Because he has a new business here in town. We have to support our own."
"Willie Anderson is single and owns a toy-train store, but you haven't targeted him."
"That's because Willie is thirty-five and still lives with his mother. None of the volunteer brides will walk down the aisle with him."
Okay, that was true.
"And I've met with Max. He's handsome. The women will love him."
Bottom line: if Max's presence would help sell tickets, her mother wouldn't take no for an answer. Coming from a marketing standpoint, Lilli could appreciate that.
Asking Max to participate was just a formality. Everyone in town knew that once Celeste had her mind set on charity matters, you couldn't ignore her. She hounded folks until she wore them down. After so many years "suggesting" they help, it became town tradition to commit first and ask questions later. Since Celeste now served as president of the historical society, she wouldn't back down on this particular event.
Still benefit or not, facing Max Sanders would not be the highlight of Lilli's day. She grasped at any excuse not to visit him. "His secretary can just as easily put me off there."
"Then I guess you'll have to demand that he see you. Be firm, Lilli. Let them know you mean business."
Lilli blinked. "You expect me to strong-arm him into it somehow?"
"I'm sorry. Sometimes I get so carried away with my charities I forget I have boundaries."
Boy-oh-boy, these historical society women took charity events to a whole new level.
"The historical society ladies and I want to work with Max," her mother continued.
"I'll see what I can do." Lilli had to take care of this so Celeste would stop worrying and Lilli could coordinate the fund-raiser while still giving the necessary attention to her job. Multitasking had just become her middle name. It wouldn't be that bad, right?
"Also, I spoke to Max about providing security the night of the benefit, but we didn't finalize the particulars. If he hesitates about attending, suggest he look at volunteering as undercover work. As a groom, he'll be able to keep an eye on the event with no one the wiser. Between the designer wedding gowns and the Wingate jewelry, I have a lot riding on this night, Lilli. You know if this weren't an emergency, I'd be there. Honestly, I'm depending on you."
Lilli stifled a groan. Could her life get any more complicated? "Max might not want to work with me."
"What happened is in the past. You both moved beyond the incident. I spent enough time with Max to see that he's gotten his life together and is now a respectable member of society. Besides, he's a businessman. He'll do what he must."
Her mother was banking on that. And what Celeste wanted, Celeste always got.
Lilli's childhood had been far from simple. Her father, a corporate lawyer, and her mother, a stay-at-home mom who mostly flitted about as a society charity queen, rarely saw eye to eye on anything. Their marriage, difficult at best, worked when they weren't in the same room. Lilli spent her vacations with one parent or the other.
She longed for a real family, to have Thanksgiving dinners together instead of going to a different resort every year, alternating parents. She dreamed of her family sitting before the twinkling tree on Christmas morning, opening the presents they'd given each other, of knowing without a shadow of a doubt that her parents loved her because she was their daughter, not a bargaining chip to use against each other.
Prior to her mother's most recent phone call, Lilli had spent twelve months excelling at a job she loved, and living the calm, quiet life she craved after growing up in a home mired in emotional chaos. She'd spent years as the object of her parents' arguments. What should their only child should do? Where should she belong? Their ideas had differed vastly from what Lilli wanted.
Not that they'd asked. And not that they'd put her first in their lives. She'd been an obedient daughter, had tried to give them what they wanted, but failed at every task. So she'd set her mind on being the best student, best employee, best everything so they'd be proud of her. And still they hadn't been able to work out their problems to keep the family whole.
After her parents' divorce, Lilli had worked hard in high school and college to cover the hurt and disappointment. She might be what some called an overachiever, but going after specific goals kept her mind focused. She'd realized she could only depend upon herself. This promotion would prove her resourcefulness. And it had nothing to do with her parents. Or this fund-raiser.
"I'm counting on you to get this done, Lilli. Give me a call when Max is confirmed."
That one night with Max had been out of character for her. And now, all these years later, she'd pay for it.
"That's assuming he agrees."
"We're on a deadline, Lilli. Confirming Max is your first priority."
Yeah, after getting on with her day job, nailing the promotion, living her life and enduring Max's wrath. "I can't believe you talked me into this," she muttered, even though her mother had hung up.
One phone call and her life tilted out of control. Her resolve to create emotional steadiness in her life went by the wayside. Her world had suddenly turned messy, and she didn't like messy. Except for the year she spent planning her doomed wedding, she'd achieved that long-awaited stability. She dated "safe" men, when she dated at all. At twenty-eight, you'd think she had it all together.
Until her mother called in a panic. That call thrust Lilli back into the craziness of her mother's world and Lilli had an ache in the pit of her stomach to show for it.
With a sigh, she glanced at her watch. Just past 9:00 a.m. With any luck she could get to Max's office, coerce a firm yes from the man without a major degree of difficulty and get back to work with productive time still left in the morning. The research on the organic dog biscuits wouldn't get done by itself. Nor would the itinerary for the town business forum her boss had asked her to put together, plus planning her strategy to land the Danielson account.
Nine in the morning, and she already had a headache.
Three weeks until the benefit. Could she do this?
Max Sanders rubbed his weary eyes, hoping the letters on the computer screen he'd been staring at would stop swimming. No good. He hit a key to close the file and downed the remainder of his coffee, flinching when the cold mouthful hit his tongue. How long had he been concentrating, anyway? With a grimace he swallowed, then rose from his chair to get a refill.
In his cramped second-story office overlooking Main Street, he slid out from behind the desk, tripped over a stack of unpacked boxes and bumped into the lone wooden straight-back chair reserved for clients before he reached the door. He really needed to take thirty minutes to straighten this place up.
His secretary, Blanche, ran the clerical end of the business. Her desk, a couch and a small coffee station filled the main office just outside his door. Talk about looking like a movie set out of a 1940s B movie. Raymond Chandler's idea of a hard-nosed investigator he was not.
Thankfully, Blanche had filled the pot before she left for an appointment. From the first day she'd come to work for him and tasted his version of coffee, she'd forbidden him to touch the machine ever again. Today he needed caffeine too much to worry about secretarial retribution.
Last night he'd stayed at the veterinarian's office until the early morning hours, waiting for his black Labrador, Jake Riley, to be out of danger. According to Doc Williams, the Lab had tangled with a cane toad and been poisoned. Jake Riley, resilient and stubborn, pulled through with the help of the vet's knowledge of poisonous toads. Max, on the other hand, was tired and out of sorts. Doc had suggested Max leave Jake at the clinic so the staff could keep an eye on him. Later this afternoon the dog could go home.
Max took a sip of the coffee, savoring the warm brew as he enjoyed the unusual quiet. He could handle things himself, even though Blanche would probably beg to differ. After all, he'd made it to twenty-nine without a major mishapdepending on who you talked tothrough a stint in the navy and years on the job as a cop in Atlanta. He'd already landed a few cases since he opened his doors. He had his mentorCypress Pointe police chief, Bob Gardener, fondly known to the town as the chiefto thank for that.
Max had returned to his desk when he heard the outer door open. He didn't have any appointments scheduled this morning. Blanche usually dealt with clients before they saw him, but in her absence he would have to play host. Hoping for new business, he put on his game face, stopping short when he spotted the gorgeous female who'd just walked in.
This day was looking up.