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What was he doing here? The moment Ashley Smith dreaded, dreamed about, worried over for months and then convinced herself wouldn't occur had finally happened.
As the bride and groom circled the floor for their first dance at an exclusive Dallas country club, Ashley's satisfaction over the smoothly flowing wedding reception vanished. Beyond the newly married couple, standing in the crowd of guests, was tall, black-haired Ryan Warner. The Ryan Warner, millionaire owner of the Warner hotel chain. The man she'd had a wild, passionate weekend with almost four months ago.
As the past assaulted Ashley, her head swam. Her first instinct was to run, but as the wedding planner, she had to stay to see that all the events flowed smoothly.
Even while dread filled her, she still thought that Ryan was the most handsome man she had ever known.
Her heart thudded when she remembered his mouth on hers.
Staring at Ryan, she would never understand what had overcome her that weekendexcept his sexy appeal and spellbinding charm. Never before in her life had she cut loose like that. Hot kisses, magical hands, irresistible seductionmemories of Ryan flashed in her mind. She recalled his take-charge manner and his fascinating charisma. After they'd made love, she'd been stunned and embarrassed by her actions.
Now here he was, just yards away across the ballroom, with a drink in his hand. Women smiled at him while he watched the bride and groom dance. Suddenly, Ashley was conscious of herself in her pale yellow linen suit, yellow silk blouse and matching pumps. She smoothed her skirt and tucked a stray strand of her blond hair in place.
She hadn't seen Ryan's name on theguest list. If she had known he would be here, she would have given the job to her assistant today. Ryan Warner was the last person on earth she wanted to encounter. So far, he hadn't seen her and she hoped to keep it that way.
If at all possible, she hoped to avoid him. She did not want to renew her acquaintance with him. At least, not until she was ready to deal with him. Though he didn't know it, he was involved in the enormous secret she kept from her family.
Her gaze drifted over the crowd again. At four inches over six feet tall, Ryan was easy to find. He was dancing now, with a gorgeous brunette, and to Ashley's relief, he seemed focused on his partner. Ashley prayed he had arrived with the woman and would soon leave with her.
Ashley melted into the crowd, glancing occasionally at Ryan while she moved around the room. Reassured the reception was progressing smoothly, she checked that the waiters picked up empty glasses, serving dishes were filled and guests seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Ashley had another brief surge of reassurance that the wedding and reception were going off without a hitch as she made her way toward the newly married couple. Emily and Jake Thorne looked radiant, both glowing, with constant smiles. She thought they looked the perfect couple togethera beautiful, brown-haired bride with her tall, black-haired, handsome husband. During the early stages of planning the elaborate wedding and reception, Emily had confided in Ashley that her union with Jake was a marriage of convenience. Ashley had soothed her client's jitters and doubts, and now gave herself a mental pat on the back for helping to make this day great for them and a time to remember the rest of their lives.
Finally, it was time to cut the cake, and the second the next dance stopped, Ashley approached the bride. "Cake-cutting time," she stated. "I have the photographer ready and waiting."
"Thanks, Ashley. This is wonderful!" Emily gushed.
"I'm glad. By the way, I don't recall Ryan Warner's name on the guest list," she added casually.
Emily shrugged. "Ryan and Jake and our best man, Nick Colton, are the closest of friends. They all grew up together. Ryan was in Europe and tied up in business and said he couldn't make the wedding, but then he surprised us this morning, and here he is. Do you know"
"There's the photographer," Ashley interrupted, having another rush of apprehension. "Go get some great pictures!" She hurried away, relieved that soon all eyes would be on the bride and groom.
Certain nothing would go wrong with the photographer and that cutting the cake would be uneventful, Ashley rushed to the powder room to get herself together. Jake still had to throw Emily's garter and she had to toss her bouquet, but little by little, they were getting through the reception. It would be over soon, but not soon enough.
When Ashley rejoined the crowd, the band still played and couples danced. She didn't see Ryan and, praying he had left the reception, she hurried to check on the tables of food. She was looking at the swan ice sculpture on the center table when a hand wrapped lightly around her wrist.
"Well, hello," said a deep voice, and her heart missed a beat.
She turned to look into curious green eyes, eyes fringed with thick black lashes beneath a head of wavy black hair. Eyes as green as a meadow and sexy enough to make her pulse jump. It was those unforgettable eyes that could wreak havoc with her insides.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "Do you know Emily and Jake?"
"Yes, I do. It's nice to see you," she said, intending to escape, aware he still was holding her wrist lightly. With his hand there, he might be able to feel her racing pulse.
"Let's dance," Ryan said, drawing her the few steps toward the dance floor. Dressed in a navy suit and white shirt, he stood out in the crowd of other well-dressed men. She suspected that it was due to an aura of self-assurance and his commanding manner.
"I can't dance today. I'm the wedding planner and I'm working."
"I knew you were a wedding planner. It didn't occur to me that you might be hired to do this wedding."
"When I'm working, I don't dance," she said, pulling back slightly as they walked a few more steps to the dance floor. She didn't want to make a scene, yet she knew she had to get away from him.
"Nonsense," he said, smiling at her and taking her into his arms.
Even though she hoped to escape, she couldn't keep from noticing his firm jaw, prominent cheekbones, straight nose and broad shoulders. She remembered the last with absolute clarityshoulders that were muscled, and a chest that was rock hard. She recalled everything about him in detail. As her face flushed, a mixture of emotions battled in her.
She had to get him out of her life, and the sooner, the better. Memories of his kisses taunted her as her gaze drifted over his features. When his attention lowered to her mouth, her breath caught.
"You ran out on me," he said, steadily watching her.
"Yes, well, that weekend was a mistake I've regretted terribly."
"Ouch! You didn't seem so unhappy at the time," he said, studying her.
"It was uncharacteristic for me. I've never never let go like that. Frankly, I'm working, and I'd rather not discuss it," she said, wishing her voice was firmer, too aware of each time their legs brushed.
"You look as beautiful as I remember," he said in his deep voice, and she grew warmer, pleased in spite of her concerns.
"How many women have you said that to recently?" she asked. "Look, I need"
"No, you don't. The reception is going great and the bride and groom are having a blast. Relax and enjoy a dance with me. Uncharacteristic or not, why did you run out like that?"
"I just told you the reason. I meant it."
"Then you had a big change of heart, because for forty-eight hours, we got along great. The best," he said in a deeper voice, and she knew he was remembering when they had made love.
"That's over," she said. Ashley wondered where the firmness in her voice had gone and why he had such a potent effect on her.
"You don't say," he murmured. "I hunted for you, but there wasn't any A. Smith, wedding planner listed in the phone book."
"I don't have a landline," she said, thinking how civilized they were behaving. At the same time, she was torn between wanting to kiss him and wanting to run from him.
"And here my buddy Jake hired you and has been working with you."
"Actually, I've worked more with Emily."
"Maybe, but Jake knew about you. It never occurred to me to ask him about his wedding planner. I'm not into weddings much."
"You made that clear at the time,"
He grinned. "At least you haven't forgotten me."
"That's impossible," she snapped, and one of his dark eyebrows arched in question.
"Why do I get the feeling that there is something wrong here?" he asked her with an intense scrutiny that worried her.
"Because something is the matter. I told you that I'm working. I shouldn't be dancing."
"I don't think that's it," he said, and she looked away, thinking he was far too perceptive. His arm tightened around her waist, drawing her closer.
She was acutely conscious of their physical contact, her hand in his warm hand, her other hand on his shoulder while they moved together. She looked up at him, hating that each time she gazed into his eyes, her heartbeat quickened. "Look, that weekend we had is over." He spun her around and danced her into a corner. "I've moved on with my life," she added.
"I don't usually strike out like this," he said, still studying her. "I want to talk to you," he stated in a low voice, drawing her nearer to him.
"Look, I need"
"I thought we both had a great time. I got the impression that you were as happy with the situation as I was."
"I told you, I sort of lost myself that weekend," she said, as she wriggled away from him, taking a step back to put more distance between them. Even still, he was too close. His mouth was only inches from hers. Half of her wanted to stand on tiptoe and kiss him, and the other half wanted to break and run. The sensible half needed to get away, and she tried to concentrate on doing that as quickly as possible. What was it about him that scrambled her cool logic so badly?
"I thought our time together was fantastic, and I've missed you and searched for you," he insisted in a thicker voice that turned her insides to jelly.
"I'm sorry," she replied, remembering her reasons for wanting to avoid him, determined to end the conversation.
"I may have ruffled your ego, but I've seen pictures of youjust recently with a gorgeous redhead on your arm. You haven't been pining away, without me. It's over. You may not be accustomed to hearing that, but get it through your head."
"You're saying it's over," he replied, "but what's wrong with renewing our acquaintance?" He took her wrist once more, and she knew he could feel her revealing heartbeat.
"If that makes you happy, I'll admit that I physically respond to you. But I have a job to do now."
"This is a big puzzle," he said, moving nearer again and wrapping his arm around her waist. Her gaze lowered to his full and sensual lips, and she remembered his fantastic kisses.
"I can see from your big blue eyes that you haven't forgotten that weekend. I don't think you regret it as much as you're saying," he added softly.
"Oh, yes, I do!" she whispered, knowing she should walk away from him. But she simply stood there, mesmerized by his intense gaze. He was looking at her as if she were the only woman on earth.
"Okay, you're working now. When this is over, go to dinner with me and let's talk. Surely you can give me that much of your time," he said with a faint smile.
Ashley paused, unable to tell him a lie, yet wanting to. "There," he said, as if she'd already agreed. "If I thought I was being intrusive and you couldn't stand me, I wouldn't insist, but you're as breathless as I am." His rich, deep voice was as tangible as a caress. "If nothing else, let's go to dinner and see what happens."
"Nothing will occur."
His eyebrow arched wickedly. "You don't know that for sure. Let my imagination have its own good time. When are you through working this reception?"
"When the bride and groom leave. My assistant is here, and the cleanup crew are experienced and know what to do."
"Great! So you'll go with me then."
"I don't see any point"
"There's a definite point," he said. "It makes me incredibly happy. You won't shatter my ego"
She received a wide grin from him that tempted her to respond. "That's impossible."
"Ah, I think I see a glimmer of a smile," he said, leaning down to peer at her. "Now you've gotten your way," she replied.
"Only about dinner," he said. "There's a whole lot more I want."
Ashley drew a deep breath. The way he pulled on her senses was irresistible, magnetic. She had no control over how her body responded. She couldn't understand her own reactions. He was so unreservedly autocratic, yet at the same time charismatic
"I need to return to work."
"You do recall our weekend together?" he asked softly.
"It was one of the best I ever had."
"It was a long time ago," she said stiffly. "I'm going back to work." She turned toward the dance floor and he hurried after her, holding her arm as they joined the other guests.
"I need to see about the bride," she told him.
"I'll find you when they leave."
"Fine. I'll be around," she said.
"You sound as if I'm going to haul you to jail instead of take you to dinner," he added lightly. Yet he gazed at her intently, and she could see the curiosity in his expression.
She realized the more she tried to get rid of him, the more interested he became. "I think you're unaccustomed to hearing no."
"I have to admit that I'm curious why. We can talk about it later. Go do what you have to do now."
"I see you two know each other," Nick Colton said, joining them and turning to Ashley. "And I saw you dancing with Ryan. Now I'd like a turn." He moved forward to place himself between the pair.
Just as she was about to decline, Ryan moved closer, putting a possessive arm around her shoulder. "We're very old and good friends. Ashley really can't dance while she's on the job. You're out of luck this time."
It was on the tip of her tongue to object when Emily touched her arm. "Please excuse me, both of you," Ashley said, turning to the bride and wishing she had avoided letting Ryan talk her into a dinner date.
"The photographer is asking about me tossing my bouquet," Emily said.
"It's time, and you rescued me from dancing when I have other things to do. Ryan doesn't take refusal well."
An hour later, Emily told Ashley that she and Jake would be leaving soon. Ashley asked her brown-haired assistant, Jenna Fremont, to take over. Then Ashley left, wondering if she was making a huge mistake.
Another first caused by Ryan. She had never run from someone before, and she felt terrible one minute and relieved the next. If he really wanted to see her, he knew how to find her now. But she suspected another quick departure from her would turn him off for good. Men like Ryan did not chase after women who didn't want to see them. They were probably accustomed to females chasing after them.
At her duplex apartment in a gated area, Ashley spent the evening thinking about Ryan. She couldn't get him out of her thoughts, and in some ways, she was disappointed she wasn't with him.
She remembered with clarity the excitement she'd had with him, as well as the reasons she had wanted to get away from him.
Early that Sunday morning when they had been together, Ashley had awakened to find him missing. She'd wrapped herself in a towel and gone looking for him, stopping in her tracks when she heard low voices. He'd been arguing with a woman.