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"I want you to stop the wedding." Caroline Mayer knew there was going to be trouble when the bride's son insisted on meeting with her in advance of her consultation with the "happy couple." But she wasn't prepared for the CEO's blunt demand.
She stared up at Jack Gaines. Caroline had no doubt that the thirty-four-year-old owner of Gaines Communication Systems was used to getting exactly what he wanted. Most men that handsome, wealthy and successful were. But the implacable Texan had targeted the wrong person to put a halt to the nuptials of his equally wealthy and successful mother.
Aside from the fact what he was asking her to do was just plain wrong, the Gaines–Ambrose nuptials could make or break her. If she failed to deliver the most talked about wedding of the year, her career as a bridal consultant would be over, almost before it began. If she succeeded, she would be the new hot wedding planner in Fort Worth. With that would come long-lasting financial security and the realization of all her dreams. She'd be able to buy a home, adopt a child, get a dog, continue to expand her business and save for the future.
Caroline flashed Jack Gaines a droll smile. She wanted him to know with whom he was dealing. "Obviously there's been a miscommunication." She paused to let her words sink in. "I'm a wedding planner. Not a spoilsport for hire."
And that was a shame, Caroline thought. Because although she wasn't looking to get involved with anyone just now—or maybe ever—she was still a woman who appreciated beauty in all forms, and Jack Gaines was a man who was very easy on the eyes.
Every inch of him, from the top of his clipped dark brown hair and chiseled masculine features, to the toes of his custom leather boots, was perfectly and precisely cared for. His face was clean shaven, his jaw solid, his lips kissable. His powerful six-foot-two frame boasted broad shoulders, an impossibly solid chest and a trim waist. But it was his expressive, silver-gray eyes that really drew her in. This was a man who missed nothing, a confident indomitable male, the kind of man who let nothing stand in his way. The kind she had sworn off, with very good reason, for the rest of her life.…
Jack moved to impede any hope of a dignified exit and challenged her with a glance. "Hear me out."
Caroline shifted the heavy weight of her monogrammed briefcase to both hands and held it in front of her knees. Simmering with a resentment she had no idea how to handle, she held his gaze deliberately and said, "I don't think that's going to be necessary. The answer to you is no." She still planned to say yes to his mother and her fiancé.
He studied her, a thoughtful expression on his handsome face. "Even if doing so would save my mother from a public grief and humiliation she doesn't expect and surely doesn't deserve?"
Caroline set her briefcase down. Maybe she could do someone a favor here—although it wouldn't be Jack Gaines. "What makes you so sure your mother is going to be hurt?"
Jack's eyes darkened. "She barely knows Dutch Ambrose."
But plenty of people knew of Dutch, Caroline argued silently. His string of rental properties on South Padre Island was the most sought after vacation venue in the area. Unfortunately, they were out of Caroline's price range—for now, anyway—but that hadn't kept her from admiring the glossy photos of the luxurious beach houses in the promotional brochures available in every grocery store in the state. "Patrice must think otherwise, or she wouldn't have agreed to marry him."
His expression adamant, Jack folded his arms across his chest. "He's rushing her into this."
Somehow, Caroline doubted that. Struggling to ignore her reaction to his nearness, she stepped back slightly. "The Patrice Gaines I've read about in the Fort Worth newspapers is not a woman to be rushed into anything."
Jack twisted his lips into a skeptical line.
Annoyed by his attitude, she went on. "I mean, how many years did your mom hold on to her perfume formula before finally selling out to that big cosmetics company?"
Jack shook his head and scoffed. "Thirty. But that's not the point."
Caroline held up a palm, silencing him. "It's exactly the point. Your mother knows her own mind. And if she wants to marry Dutch Ambrose, then she should—with no interference from you!"
He narrowed his gaze at her. "You're saying you won't help me."
She was going to have to let this job go. Better to steer clear of it than find herself in the middle of a familial contretemps that could ruin an otherwise spectacular wedding day, and along with it, her hard-earned professional reputation.
Her thoughts turned to the memory of another handsome, determined male, and the heartache he'd caused her while claiming to have her best interests at heart. What was it with guys, anyway, that made them think they knew better than the women in their lives, and hence, needed to go all out to protect them?
"Even if I pay you a lot of money?" Jack persisted.
Those words brought Caroline back to the present. She had nothing against the quest for money. She was doing everything she could to make a better, more secure life for herself, too, and like it or not, that meant having money in the bank. But the assumption that she could be bought rankled. She absolutely would not do to someone else what had been done to her. And it was time Jack Gaines found that out!
Caroline propped her hands on her hips and glared at him, making no effort to disguise her contempt. "Let's get something clear, Mr. Gaines. I will not help you betray your mother. I will not destroy her dreams. And I most definitely will not smile and say one thing to her face and then go behind her back and do something else that will break her heart and simultaneously benefit me. And furthermore, I'm insulted that you would even ask!"
With that, Caroline picked up her briefcase and stalked out.
"What do you mean Caroline Mayer refused to plan my wedding?" Patrice Gaines demanded later that same day as she looked up from the notepad in her hand. A veteran list maker, Patrice was rarely without paper and pen. Jack cast a glance at his seven-year-old daughter, Maddie, out in the yard, throwing a ball for her accident-prone dog, Bounder. Relieved that at the moment the sweet-tempered and energetic two-year-old golden retriever was not involved in any mischief, or doing anything that would require yet another emergency trip to the vet, and that his equally lively daughter was happily entertained, caring for her favorite "friend and companion," Jack smiled. At least two members of the Gaines clan were happy.
Jack pushed aside his guilt at his deception and turned back to his mother with a shrug. "I'm sorry, Mom. I asked her this afternoon. She said no." And a lot of other things he would prefer his mother never hear.
Patrice put down her list, took off her bifocals and let them rest on the gold chain around her neck. "Caroline Mayer is the best up-and-coming wedding planner in the entire Fort Worth area! Weddings masterminded by her are incredible, memorable events!"
"So you mentioned," Jack said drily, trying not to think about the elegant woman who had shot him down and then walked off without a backward glance. It wasn't just her refusal to be intimidated by him that kept Caroline Mayer in his thoughts. Or the tousled layers of copper hair that framed her face and curved against her chin. It was the mix of innocence and cynicism in her crystal-blue eyes. The sense that she'd been around the block more than once when it came to business and having her pride hurt.
He'd heard she had not come from money, yet she was elegance defined, from her high femininely sculpted cheekbones and pert nose to the slender curves on her five-foot-five frame.
She knew how to dress—as had been evidenced by her pale pink business pantsuit, silk shell and heels. She knew what understated jewelry to wear. The only thing lacking in her presence, Jack had noted, was perfume. Caroline hadn't worn any.
Although the subtle sunny fragrance of her hair and skin had been pleasurable enough. He wondered, when she did wear perfume, what kind of scent did she favor? Something light and innocent, or mysterious and deeply sensual?
Oblivious to the direction of his thoughts, Jack's mother pressed on. "Is it money? Did you not offer her enough? Is that it?"
"We never got to the part about the money," Jack admitted reluctantly. "And I told you, if you're going to get married, I want to be the one to pay for it."
Patrice frowned. "Was there a conflict with the time frame I selected, then? Is that the problem?"
Jack thought of the ramrod set of Caroline Mayer's slender spine and the seductive sway of her hips as she stalked out. Coming or going, she was one beautiful woman—who now couldn't stand the sight of him. Jack cleared his throat. "We never got that far, either."
Clearly exasperated, Patrice threw up her hands. "Then why did she say no?"
Because she's a wedding planner, not a spoilsport. And I made the mistake of being honest with her about my sentiments regarding the impending nuptials, Jack thought irritably. Caroline hadn't accepted the fact he was only trying to protect his mother from a mistake that could destroy her. Aware his mother was still waiting for a plausible explanation, Jack said finally, "It was just a personality thing, Mom." Clashing personalities. "The woman took an instant dislike to me."
Astonishment warred with the skepticism on her face. Patrice furrowed an artfully shaped brow. "I know you can be a bit linear at times, especially when you're involved with your work…"
Why not just say it? Jack thought. There are times when I lack people skills….
"But surely Caroline Mayer has worked with her share of engineers and other task-specific people before. She knows how, well…unromantic…and practical to the point of insanity…you all can be."
"Thanks, Mom," Jack said wryly.
"You know what I mean. I know you sometimes say and do the wrong thing, but it's always obvious to me you mean well and have a good heart."
"Well, she apparently didn't think so," Jack muttered.
"Why on earth not?" His mother looked all the more perplexed and incensed.
Not about to go down that road, Jack shrugged and said carefully, "Bottom line—I think I just annoyed her on a lot of levels, and she decided she would rather not have to deal with me."
"I don't want anyone else," Patrice said stubbornly.
Dutch Ambrose, Patrice's fiancé, chose this time to wander into the room. On the surface, the guy was the perfect husband for his petite blonde mother. Tall, rangy, slightly stooped—at sixty-two, Dutch had a ready smile, a full head of thick white hair and the kind of deep ever-present tan that came from years spent at the beach and on the golf course. He dressed in sneakers, bright plaid golf pants, solid polo shirts and cardigan sweaters. He'd been practicing his shot in the study, and had his putter and a golf ball in hand. "What's the problem?" Dutch asked genially, as unerringly polite as ever.
Patrice looked over at the fiancé she'd only known three months, and explained the difficulty Jack had encountered with Caroline Mayer.
Jack had only to look at his mother's face to know where this was going.
"I'll call her again," Jack promised. "I'll get down on my knees and beg, if necessary."
"No," his mother said even more firmly, giving him The Look that had always preceded a grounding when he was a kid. "You won't."
"Who is here to see me?" Caroline asked her administrative assistant from her office in Weddings Unlimited.
Looking much younger than her fifty-something years, Sela Ramirez shut the door behind her. Her vibrant red-and-gold dress sparkled in the late-afternoon sunlight as she crossed the all-white office and stood before Caroline's sleek glass-and-chrome desk. "Jack and Patrice Gaines, a little girl named Maddie, her dog and another gentleman, Dutch Ambrose."
He was here—the take-charge man with the arresting silvery gray eyes who had already commandeered her lunch hour, and had her thinking about him off and on most of the day. Caroline pushed away from her laptop computer and sat back in her chair. "You're kidding."
Sela propped a hand on the voluptuous curve of her hip. "You only wish I was kidding."
Why did the wealthy always have to be so eccentric? Caroline wondered. Because they could….
"Would you like me to tell them you're too busy to see them?" Sela asked.
"No." Caroline sighed, thinking. If they were this determined, they'd find some way to see her. At least this confrontation, if that was what it was, would be private. There would be talk enough when word got out she had turned down the job, and speculation why—which, as a courtesy, she would not answer. Caroline went back to her laptop and finished updating her To Do list for the day, checking off all the items she had completed thus far. "Just give me a moment, and have them all come in. And, Sela, while they are here, hold my calls."
A minute later, all four of her guests trooped in. Well, Caroline amended silently, taking a moment to study her uninvited guests. Jack strode in, looking every bit as reluctant to be there as she was to have him. His mother, Patrice, was every bit as blonde and petite and elegant as the photos that always appeared in the paper. And she smelled incredible, as if she were wearing one of the signature scents she had been famous for before she sold her business. She was on the arm of a dapper white-haired gentleman, who also looked to be in his early sixties. A little girl who was all tomboy followed. The color of her dark brown bob matched Jack's. She wore a backward baseball cap, T-shirt and overall shorts, snow-white cotton athletic socks and dirty sneakers. She had a fluffy, and quite large, golden retriever loping at her side. Not on a leash, Caroline noted, but then, at least for the moment, the dog did not appear to need one. It looked intent on staying close to its mistress.
"We'll cut straight to the chase," Patrice said regally, after quickly and expertly making introductions. "I understand you've refused to plan my wedding to Dutch—and I want to know why!"
Jack regarded Caroline with a poker face—except for his silver-gray eyes. They were pleading for her not to give him away.
It would serve you right, she thought, if I did.
"Please help us," Dutch Ambrose said.
Maddie stopped petting her dog, long enough to look up.
"Can Bounder be in the wedding, too?" Her big blue-gray eyes danced with delight at the idea.