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Giggles overrode romantic flute music flowing from overhead speakers as Sara Woodward reached for, and missed, her two squirming nephews. Brett and Brady slipped past her and through a narrow door that led into the display windows of Weddings by Woodwards bridal shop.
A door Sara had left ajar.
"You're not allowed in here, guys," she whispered. She followed only after she'd checked to be sure none of the family was nearby. "Come out of there right now."
But the mischievous pair would not emerge, and their impromptu game of tag was wreaking havoc with her grandmother's bridal displays. Italian silk wasn't meant for three-year-old boys with dirty sneakers.
Sara tried negotiation, to no avail.
"If those two are someone's ring bearers, you'll have your hands full getting them down the aisle."
Startled by the masculine voice behind her, Sara yelped and jerked upright. The back of her head bumped the arm of a groom mannequin, dislodging its top hat and cane. The brass-tipped ebony stick pinged against the display window with a clatter.
It seemed the entire building fell silent, including the two causes of this mayhem. Brady's face wrinkled. He was going to start crying. Judging by the droop of his twin's bottom lip, Brett wouldn't be far behind.
Sara knew exactly how they felt. Nothing about today was going right.
"Sorry I scared you." Amusement laced the man's voice the way a drop of rich cream mellows coffee. "Maybe I can help. Grab the one in blue and pass him to me, then you can haul out the red-shirted one. Okay?"
"I'll try. Thanks." Sara didn't dare take her eyes off the twins. "Come on, Brett. Out you go."
"No." It was hisfavorite word.
Sara desperately wished she'd been late this morning and therefore unavailable to watch her brother's kids while he took an important call. Coming home to help out the family was one thing, but babysitting in a bridal store was asking for trouble.
A wicker basket hit the floor, scattering rose petals everywhere.
"Come on, Brett. We'll play with your toys," she wheedled.
"No," Brady copied.
"Auntie will get you a new toy." Sara clung to her smile, feeling a fool in front of the stranger. Ordinarily she deplored bribery, but this situation called for desperate measures. "Don't you want a new toy?"
"Yes!" Exasperated, Sara extended her fingertips to snag a belt loop on Brett's tiny blue jeans just as the voice behind her inquired:
"I don't suppose either of them likes candy?"
"Candy?" Brett surged up so fast his head hit Sara's chin, knocking her teeth together. He dropped the tulle he'd pulled down, almost forcing her off balance as he launched himself through the narrow passage. "I like candy. Candy's good."
"Sometimes it's very good." The voice behind Sara sounded amused by the bundle of nonstop energy. "Gotcha. But we can't have candy without your brother. Can you sit very still and wait for him?"
"Brett's a good boy."
"You sure are," the visitor agreed. "I wonder how good your brother is."
The man knew kids. Brady's frown deepened. He glared at Sara as if she'd maligned his character. Or tried to steal his treat.
"Brady's good, too!" He dropped to all fours, crawled between Sara's feet and out the door.
"Got him, too," the masculine voice triumphed. "You can come out now."
Sara wasn't sure she wanted to. Not if it meant another half hour of trying to pry grimy fingers off the pristine bridal dresses displayed all over the foyer.
"I assure you, it's safe." Laughter colored the edge of their visitor's low-throated rumble. "For now, anyway."
"I'm coming." She rubbed one finger against her throbbing skull and found her way blocked. "Would you step back? It's very narrow here."
"Sure is." He jostled the door against a tulle-covered arch laced with nodding sunflowers. The arch jiggled, then shifted. That knocked off the bride's arm. It clattered to the floor along with her bouquet of dried autumn wildflowers.
The resulting mess was a far cry from Woodward's usually chichi displays, but fixing it now was out of the question. Sara
could only hope she'd get time to rectify matters before the family noticed.
Dream on. When had the family not noticed anything that affected Weddings by Woodwards?
"Something wrong? Need help?"
"I can manage."
There was no point wishing their visitor wouldn't witness her backward, very uncool duckwalk out of the passage. Free at last, Sara clicked the lock closed, frustrated and fed up with the way her life wasn't going.
Did she look almost eighty?
"No." Sara bent to straighten her black skirt, buying time to regain the composure Denver's hottest wedding store and its employees were known for. "But if you need help with a wedding, you're in the right place. Weddings by Woodwards takes pride in planning weddings that are unique to every bride and groom we serve."
The stock phrase slipped easily to her lips. Good thing, because when Sara glanced up at the owner of that coffee-and-cream voice, her throat jammed closed.
"Kidding." He winked at her. "I was kidding. I could tell when I walked past the windows that you aren't Mrs. Woodward."
Meaning he knew her grandmother?
Sara took stock of her visitor. Slightly older than the usual Woodwards' groom, he stood nearly six feet tall. The mass of unruly mahogany curls cut close against his scalp could have given him a rakish look—except for the plump baby fingers threading through them.
"I'll take him." She reached out for Brady who glared at her and clutched his rescuer all the tighter. "Or not."
"He's fine." The visitor wore black tooled-leather boots, fitted jeans and a battered leather jacket that almost screamed "wild west." Evidently her nephew thought the same.
"Cowboy," Brady said, trailing his grubby paws against the leather. "Horsie?"
"Not here, pal." The man chuckled as he tousled Brady's hair. "But I have some at home on my ranch."
"Horsies are good. Candy's good."
Sara's rescuer burst into deep-throated laughter that filled the two-story foyer.
"Not very subtle, are you, son?"
This cowboy was movie-star material. Substitute his leather and jeans for a wedding tux, and any bride would race down the aisle. On closer scrutiny, Sara glimpsed an indefinable quality to those blue eyes that branded this man as more substantial than a mere movie star. The twins recognized it, too, because they remained perfectly still, staring at him.
"Thank you for helping. They're a bit of a handful."
"I can imagine." His face was all sharp angles. Etched lines carved out the corners of his eyes, as if he'd known sadness and grief too often. His sapphire stare captivated Sara, pushed past her barriers and peered inside, as if to expose the secrets she kept hidden from the world.
Or maybe it was all in her mind.
"I have an appointment to speak with Winifred Woodward." He eased Brady's grip from his hair and lowered the boy so his feet rested on the floor. "There you go, buddy."
An icon in the wedding-planning business, Grandma Winnie was always fielding so-called appointments of people who simply wanted to meet the matriarch of Weddings by Woodwards. Winnie, sweet woman that she was, would never refuse them. That's why Sara had come home.
Recent exhaustion had lowered Winnie's ability to fight a cold and, according to the family, her grandmother needed complete rest to recover. Sara's job was to fill in wherever she was needed at Woodwards.
Today that meant manning the reception desk.
"You weren't in her appointment book, Mr. Porter." Sara knew because she'd canceled or rebooked all Winnie's appointments last week, the day after she'd returned to Denver.
"Nevertheless, I do have an appointment." Dark brows climbed, daring her to dispute it. "Would you direct me to her office please?"
"I'm afraid that isn't going to be possible."
The eyebrows elevated a millimeter higher. Jutting cheekbones and a forceful chin told Sara that Cade Porter wouldn't give up easily.
"Candy?" Brady reminded.
"You have to wait a moment, sweetie."
"Good boy." Sara savored his winsome smile before returning to her customer. "I'm assuming you're here to talk about planning a wedding, Mr. Porter. If you can wait, I'll find you a planner as soon as I get these two settled. I have to watch them until my brother returns. As you've noticed, they take a lot of watching."
"I did notice." Cade Porter's lips lifted in a grin. He squatted down and spoke quietly to the twins, showing them two wrapped peppermints, identical to the ones filling a crystal bowl on the counter. He glanced at her belatedly. "Okay with you?"
"Anything to keep them busy." She ignored the inner warning that said sugar wasn't the best choice. One candy couldn't hurt.
"Here are the rules, guys." Mr. Porter waited until their attention was focused on him. "You have to sit here until you're finished. Then we'll wash your hands. After that, maybe I'll tell you about my horses. Is it a deal?"
Enthralled, the twins nodded, received their candy and began unwrapping. Mr. Porter rose. His face lost the soft amusement as he studied Sara.
"Look, I'm sure you employ good people here, but I want Mrs. Woodward. I confirmed with her eight days ago. Surely Weddings by Woodwards doesn't promise their clients one thing and then "
Sara might not want to be part of the family business, but nobody disparaged it and got away unchallenged.
"My grandmother was taken ill a week ago. I regret that you weren't informed." She bent to pick up the wrappers the boys had tossed on the pale pink carpet. "And I'm very sorry that you've been inconvenienced. But because Winnie won't be back at work for at least a month, I'm afraid you'll have to make a new appointment. Or accept help from someone else."
His heavily lashed eyes darkened.
"I'm sorry she's ill. Maybe—" He stopped, frowned as if reconsidering.
Red flags soared in Sara's brain. If she lost a potential client, her sister Katie would be on her case all afternoon.
"If you'll—" Sara almost choked when Brett's sticky fingers grabbed Mr. Porter at the knee. She eased Brady's hand away. What was taking Reese so long? "I'm sorry about that," she apologized, trying to recall who might be free to deal with Mr. Porter.
"They're just jeans. They won't melt. Can you get a wet cloth?"
"A cloth?" His generous smile confused her usually functioning brain.
"To wipe off the kids. I don't think those pretty dresses on
display will look quite as nice with peppermint smeared all over them." He brushed Brady's hair with a big capable hand. "We'll get this pair busy drawing a horse. Then maybe you and I can get started."
Sara frowned. Started—doing what?
"Cloth?" he reminded her as he kept Brett's hand from touching a length of veiling.
"Right." She fetched a damp washcloth and tried to wipe Brett's fingers, but her nephew veered away, clinging to Mr. Porter.
"Let me." He took the cloth and with gentle thoroughness wiped down two faces and four hands, teasing the boys as he did. Her nephews had never behaved so well.
"Don't look so surprised. Kids usually like me." Mr. Porter grinned as he handed back the cloth.
"I'm sure they do. I've just never seen these two so quiet." Sara got rid of the sticky cloth. "Except maybe when they're asleep."
Mr. Porter's lips twitched. He hunkered down next to the boys who were arguing over the crayons and paper pads scattered across the coffee table. He told them a little about his ranch, then promised a special treat for whoever could draw the best horse.
How did he know competition was the best way to get them focused?
"Okay, now can we talk about my wedding?" Cade Porter rose, folded his arms across his wide chest, charm oozing from the lopsided smile he flashed at her. "Unless Woodward Weddings can't handle it."
"Weddings by Woodwards," she corrected.
"Yeah, that." His gaze slid to the wall above the counter. "I assume that array of diplomas includes you as one of the wedding planners?"
Sara followed his gaze, noticed a silver framed certificate she'd earned four years ago hanging among the rest of the family's. Trust her sister to dig it out and display it, as if Sara was permanently back on staff.
"My mistake." His mouth tightened. "I'd prefer Mrs. Woodward to handle things, but because that's out, perhaps you'll summon whoever's handling her cases."
Offended, Sara bristled to her own defense.
"I am a certified wedding planner, Mr. Porter. I've planned about forty weddings and I am quite capable of handling your needs." Even if her family always interfered.
"I need someone who can deal with the unusual." He studied her for several moments, his gaze dark and inscrutable.
"Then you need me." The words slipped out without a second thought. Sara almost groaned. She was as bad as the twins, taking the bait faster than they'd latched on to his promise of candy.
"Do I?" Cade Porter blinked.
His dubious demeanor underscored her own growing doubts. Like her siblings, Sara had begun learning about the wedding business shortly after she learned to walk. But she hadn't planned a wedding since she'd walked out of Weddings by Woodwards two years ago to escape her loving, but constantly meddling family.
Which did not mean she'd forgotten everything she'd learned here.
"What kind of a wedding do you want, Mr. Porter?"
"That's an odd question." He scratched his shaven chin, seemingly stymied. "How many kinds are there?"
"Many." Obviously Cade Porter was a complete innocent.
"Horsie." Brett held up his scribble.
"Hmm. Not bad. But he needs legs."
While Cade and the boys discussed horse anatomy, Sara found a notepad and pen. She'd come home to help. Might as well do her best.
"What are my choices?" he asked, twisting his head to study her.
"When are you to be married?"
"I'm not." He frowned at her. "It's not my wedding."
"So you're not getting married—but you want to plan a wedding?" Sara's headache amplified.
"Exactly." Humor twinkled in the depths of his blue eyes. "I want to plan a wedding for my sister."
"Ah." While her brother Reese probably wouldn't plan a wedding for her, Sara was pretty sure the rest of the family certainly would. They'd find her a groom, arrange the ceremony and take over every detail without asking for her input—if she let them.
Sara loved her family dearly, but they refused to acknowledge that she was an adult who could think and choose her own course in life.
"Those two tornadoes aren't going to color for long," Cade reminded.
"Sorry. I was thinking." She had to find out about Mr. Porter's sister. Having experienced prying too often herself, Sara decided on tact. "Weddings should be personal. If your sister prefers an outdoor location, spring or summer events work best. Is she thinking of a large event? Sit-down reception? Church wedding or—"
"Yes?" Pulling teeth would be easier. "Yes—what, exactly?"
"Church wedding. I think." He glanced around the reception area. His nose wrinkled when his glance landed on delicate white wrought iron chairs with their tufted white silk cushions. "The reception can't be stuffy. Not like—
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