A Wedding at Leopard Tree Lodge

A Wedding at Leopard Tree Lodge

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by Liz Fielding

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Events planner Josie Fowler has scooped the wildest celebrity wedding of the year in a luxury lodge hotel in Botswana! She's surrounded by prowling leopards and crocodile-filled rivers, but more dangerous to her sanity is the resort owner—enigmatic entrepreneur Gideon McGrath.

As Josie wrestles with taffeta and table plans, Gideon's take-charge


Events planner Josie Fowler has scooped the wildest celebrity wedding of the year in a luxury lodge hotel in Botswana! She's surrounded by prowling leopards and crocodile-filled rivers, but more dangerous to her sanity is the resort owner—enigmatic entrepreneur Gideon McGrath.

As Josie wrestles with taffeta and table plans, Gideon's take-charge approach is getting in her way—and his sexy smile is getting under her skin….

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Escape Around the World , #4167
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Destination weddings offer up a host of opportunities for a ceremony with a difference…

The Perfect Wedding by Serafina March


Josie Fowler wasn't sure which stunned her most. The location of the wedding which, despite endless media speculation, had been the best kept secret of the year, or the fact that Marji Hayes, editor of Celebrity magazine, was sharing it with her.

'Botswana,' Marji repeated, practically whispering, as if afraid that her line might be bugged. If it was, whispering wouldn' t help. 'I called Sylvie. I had hoped…' Her voice trailed off.

'Yes?' Josie prompted as she used one finger to tap 'Botswana' into the search engine of her computer. Silly question. She knew exactly what Marji had hoped. That the aristocratic Sylvie Duchamps Smith would rush to pick up the pieces of the most talked about wedding of the year. Sylvie, however, was too busy enjoying her new baby daughter to pull Marji's wedding irons out of the fire.

'I realise that she's still officially on maternity leave, but I had hoped that for something this big…'

Josie waited, well aware that not even a royal wedding would have tempted Sylvie away from her new husband, her new baby. Trying to contain a frisson of excitement as she realised what this call actually meant.

'When I called, she explained that she's made you her partner. That weddings are now solely your responsibility.' She couldn't quite keep the disbelief out of her voice.

Marji was not alone in that. There had been an absolute forest of raised eyebrows in the business when Sylvie had employed a girl she'd found working in a hotel scullery as her assistant.

They'd got over it. After all, she was just a gofer. Someone to run around, do the dirty work. And she'd proved herself, become accepted as a capable coordinator, someone who could be relied on, who didn't flap in a crisis. A couple of bigger events organisers had even tried to tempt her away from Sylvie with more money, a fancy title.

But clearly the idea of her delivering a design from start to finish was going to take some swallowing.

She'd warned Sylvie how it would be and she'd been right. She'd been a partner for three months now and while they had plenty of work to keep them busy, all of it pre-dated her partnership.

'You're very young for such responsibility, Josie,' Marji suggested, with just enough suggestion of laughter to let her know that she wasn't supposed to take offence. 'So very…eccentric in your appearance.'

She didn't deny it. She was twenty-five. Young in years to be a partner in an events company but as old as the hills in other ways. And if her clothes, the purple streaks in her lion's mane hair, were not conventional, they were as much a part of her image as Sylvie's classic suits and pearls.

'Sylvie was nineteen when she launched SDS Events,' she reminded Marji. Alone, with no money, nowhere to live. All she'd known was how to throw a damn good party.

Despite their very different backgrounds, they'd had that nothingness in common and Sylvie had given her a chance when most people would have taken one look and taken a step back. Two steps if they'd known what Sylvie knew about her.

But they had worked well together. Sylvie had wooed clients with her aristocratic background, her elegance, while she was the tough working class girl who knew how to get things done on the ground. An asset who could cope with difficult locations, drunken guests—and staff; capable of stopping a potential fight with a look. And in the process she'd absorbed Sylvie's sense of style almost by osmosis. On the outside she might still look like the girl Sylvie had, against all the odds, given a chance. But she'd grabbed that opportunity with all her heart, studied design, business, marketing, and on the inside she was a different woman.

'And if I changed my appearance no one would recognise me,' she added, and earned herself another of those patronising little laughs.

'Well, yes.' Then, 'Of course there's no design involved in this job. All that was done weeks ago and at this late stage…'

In other words it was a skivvy job and no one with a 'name' was prepared to take it on. The wretched woman couldn't have tried any harder to make her feel like the scrapings at the bottom of the barrel and Josie had to fight the urge to tell her to take her wedding and stick it.

Catching her lower lip between her teeth, she took a deep breath; she still had quite a way to go to attain Sylvie's style and grace, but this was too important to mess up.

With this wedding under her belt—even in the skivvy role—she could paint herself purple to match her hair and clients would still be scrambling to book her to plan their weddings.

Not as a stand-in for Sylvie, but for herself.

But she'd had enough with the I-really-wish-I-didn't-have-to-do-this delaying tactics.

'Can we get on, Marji? I have a client appointment in ten minutes,' she said and Emma, her newly appointed assistant, who was busy filling in details on one of the event plans that lined the walls of her small office, glanced up in surprise, as well she might since her diary was empty.

'Of course.' Then, 'I'm sure I don't have to impress upon you the need for the utmost confidentiality,' she said, making it absolutely clear in her lemon-sucking voice that she did.

Not true.

Josie had seen the build-up to the wedding of Tal Newman, one of the world's most highly paid footballers, to Crystal Blaize. The ferocious bidding war against all-comers had cost Celebrity a fortune—money that the couple were using to set up a charitable trust—and the magazine was milking it for all it was worth. Hyping up the secrecy of the location was all part of that. It also helped keep rival publications from planting someone on the inside to deliver the skinny on who behaved badly and grab illicit photos so that they could run spoilers.

If she let slip the location, SDS might as well shut up shop.

'My lips are sealed,' she said. 'I'm not even sure where Botswana is,' she lied. According to the screen in front of her, it was a 'tranquil' and 'peaceful' landlocked country in southern Africa.

Marji clucked at her ignorance. 'It's a very now destination, Josie.'

'Is it? That information seems to have passed me by.' But then she didn't spend her life obsessing over the latest fads of celebrities.

'And Crystal is such an animal-lover.'

Animals? In Africa?

'So that would be…Elephants? Lions?' No, smaller…'Monkeys?'

All of those, of course. But the real stars will be the leopards.'

Even with his underdeveloped human sense of smell, Gideon McGrath knew Leopard Tree Lodge was close long before the four-by-four pulled into the compound. There was a sweet, fresh green scent from the grass that reached out across the sparse bush that drew the animals from across the Kalahari, especially now as they neared the end of the dry season.

Once his pace had quickened too, his heart beating with excitement as he came to the riverbank that he had claimed as his own.

The driver who'd picked him up from the airstrip pulled into the shaded yard and he sat for a moment, gathering himself for the effort of moving.

'Dumela, Rra! It is good to see you!'


He clasped the hand of the man who emerged from the shadows to greet him with a broad smile of welcome.

'It has been a very long time, Rra, but we always hoped you'd come…' His smile quickly became concern. 'You are hurt?'

'It's nothing,' he said, catching his breath as he climbed down. 'I'm a bit stiff, that's all. Too many days travelling. How is your family?' he asked, not wanting to think about the tight, agonising pain in his lower back. Or its cause.

'They are good. If you have time, they will be pleased to see you.'

'I have some books for your children,' Gideon said, turning to take his bag from the back seat. He spent half his life on the move and travelled light but, as he tried to lift it, it felt like lead.

'Leopards?' Josie repeated. 'Aren't they incredibly dangerous?'

'Oh, these are just cubs. A local man has raised a couple of orphans and he's bringing them along on the day. All you'll have to do is tie ribbons around their necks.'

'Oh, well, that's all right then.' Maybe. She had a cat and even when Cleo was a kitten her claws were needle-sharp…

'The wedding is going to be held at Leopard Tree Lodge, you see?' Marji told her. 'It's a fabulous game-viewing lodge. Utter luxury in the wilderness. To be honest, I totally envy you the opportunity to spend time there.'

'Well, golly,' she said, as if she, too, couldn't believe her luck.

'You won't even have to leave your private deck to view the big game. None of that racketing about in a four-wheel drive getting covered in dust. You can simply sit in your own private plunge pool and watch elephants cavorting below you in an oxbow lake while you sip a glass of chilled bubbly.'

'Well, that's a relief,' Josie replied wryly, recognising a quote from a tourist brochure when she heard one. Marji might believe that she was offering her a luxury, all expenses paid holiday; she knew that once on site she wouldn't have a minute to spare to draw breath, let alone dally in a plunge pool admiring the view.

Relaxation in the run-up to a wedding was the sole privilege of the bride and good luck to her. Although, with half a dozen issues of Celebrity to fill with pictures, even she wasn't going to have a lot of down time before, or during, the big day.

For the person charged with the responsibility of ensuring that everything ran smoothly it was going to be a very hard day at the office, although in this instance it wouldn't be her own calm, ordered space, where everything she needed was no more than a phone call away.

As she knew from experience, even the best organised weddings had the potential for last minute disasters and in the wilds of Botswana there would be none of the backup services she was usually able to call on in an emergency.

And it would take more than a look to stop a leopard disturbing the party. Even a baby leopard.

'There's nothing like being covered in dust to put a crimp in your day,' she added as, with the 'where' dealt with, she confronted a rather more pressing problem.

Unless the word 'wilderness' was simply travel brochure hyperbole—and the reference to elephants sloshing about in the river at her feet suggested otherwise—there wasn't going to be an international airport handy.

'How is everyone going to get there?'

'We've booked an air charter company to handle all the local transport,' Marji assured her. 'You don't have to worry about that—'

'I worry about everything, Marji.' Including the proximity of elephants. And the damage potential of a pair of overexcited leopard cubs. 'It's why SDS weddings run so smoothly.'

'Well, quite. If Sylvie's company wasn't so highly thought of we wouldn't be having this conversation.' She paused, her train of thought disrupted. 'Where was I?'

'Transport?' Josie prompted, doing her best to keep a lid on her rising irritation.

'Oh, yes. Serafina was due to fly out first thing tomorrow. You heard what happened?'

The official version was that Serafina March, society wedding 'designer'—nothing as common as 'planner' for her—and self-proclaimed 'wedding queen' who had been given the awesome responsibility of planning this event, had been struck down by a virus.

Insider gossip had it that Crystal had thrown a strop, declaring that she'd rather get married in a sack at the local register office than put up with another moment with 'that snooty cow' looking down her nose at her.

Having been looked down on by Serafina herself on more than one occasion, Josie knew exactly how she felt.

'How is Serafina?'

'Recovering. It's just a shame she can't be there, especially when she's put her heart and soul into this wedding.' Then, having got that off her chest, she proceeded briskly, 'The bride's party will be flying out the following day but Tal has a number of official engagements in the capital so he and Crystal won't arrive until the next evening. Plenty of time for you to run through everything before they arrive so that you can iron out any last minute snags.'

'Since there's so little to do, maybe I could leave it until the day after tomorrow?' Josie suggested, unable to help herself.

'Better safe than sorry. This is going to be a fairly intimate wedding. Leopard Tree Lodge is a small and exclusive safari camp, however, so we've chartered a river boat to accommodate the overflow.'

Wilderness, water and wild animals—three things guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of the average event planner. And there was also the word 'camp'—not exactly reassuring.

No matter how 'luxurious' the brochure declared it to be, a tent was still a tent.

When she didn't rush to exclaim with excitement, gush at the honour being bestowed on her, Marji said, 'All the hard work has been done, Josie.'

All the interesting work.

The planning. The design. Choosing food, music, clothes, colour scheme, flowers. The shopping trips with a bride whose credit never ran out.

'You just need me to ensure that everything runs smoothly,' Josie said.

'Uh-oh!' Emma's eyebrows hit her hairline as she picked up on the edge she hadn't been able to keep out of her voice, but being patronised by Marji Hayes really was more than flesh and blood could stand.

'Absolutely. Serafina's organised everything down to the last detail.' The wretched woman had a skin as thick as a rhinoceros. It would take more than an 'edge'; it would take a damn great axe to make an impression. 'I just need someone to ensure her design is carried through. Check that all her wonderful detail is in place so that our photographers can get great shots for the series of features we have planned. Exactly what you'd do for Sylvie.'

'And ensure that the bride and groom have their perfect day?' she offered, unable to stop herself from reminding Marji that this was about more than a skirmish in her circulation war with the growing number of lifestyle magazines on the market.

'What? Oh, yes,' she said dismissively. Then, 'We're running out of time on this, Josie. I'll email the flight details and courier the files over to your office. You can read them on the plane.'

It was the opportunity of a lifetime but she'd been insulted, subtly and not so subtly, so many times in the last ten minutes that she refused to do what was expected and simply roll over.

'To be honest,' she said, her voice growing softer as her fingers did to her hair what she wanted to do to Marji, 'with so little to do, I don't understand why you need me at all. Surely one of your own staff could handle it?' She didn't wait for an answer but added, 'Better still, why don't you go yourself? Once you've dealt with all those little details you'll be able to chill out in that plunge pool.'

With luck, a leopard would mistake her for lunch.

'Oh, don't tempt me,' Marji replied with one of her trilling little laughs that never failed to set Josie's teeth on edge. 'I'd give my eye teeth to go, but I have a magazine to run. Besides, I believe these things are best left to the professionals.'

Professionals who didn't patronise the bride…

'I've promised Crystal the wedding of her dreams, Josie.'

Her dreams? Maybe.

It had no doubt started out that way, but Josie wondered how Crystal was feeling about it now. Giddy with excitement, thrilled to be marrying the man she loved in the biggest, most lavish ceremony she, or rather Serafina March, could imagine?

Or was she frazzled with nerves and desperately wishing she and Tal had run away to Las Vegas to say their vows in private?

Most brides went through that at some point in the run-up to their wedding, usually when they were driven to distraction by family interference. Few of them had to cope with the additional strain of a media circus on their back.

'We can't let her down,' Marji persisted, anxious as she sensed her lack of enthusiasm. 'To be honest, she's somewhat fragile. Last minute nerves. I don't have to tell you how important this is and I believe that Crystal would be comfortable with you.'

Oh, right. Now they were both being patronised. Tarred with the same 'not one of us' brush, and for a moment she was tempted to tell Marji exactly what she could do with her wedding and to hell with the consequences.

Instead, she said, 'You'll run a piece in the next issue of the magazine mentioning that I'm taking over?'

'It's Serafina's design,' she protested.

'Of course. Let's hope she's fit enough to travel tomorrow—'

'But we will be happy to add our thanks to you for stepping in at the last moment, Josie,' she added hurriedly.

It was a non-committal promise at best and she recognised as much, but everyone would know, which was all that mattered. And in the end this wasn't about her, or Marji, or even the wedding queen herself.

If Sylvie had taught her anything, it was that no bride, especially a bride whose wedding was going to be featured in full colour for all the world to see, should be left without someone who was totally, one hundred per cent, there for her on the big day. Josie let out a long, slow breath.

'Courier the files to my office, Marji. I'll email you a contract.'

Her hand was shaking as she replaced the receiver and looked up. 'Email a standard contract to Marji Hayes at Celebrity, Emma.'


'Standard hourly rate, with a minimum of sixty hours, plus travel time,' she continued, with every outward appearance of calm. 'All expenses to their account. We've picked up the Tal Newman/Crystal Blaize wedding.'

As Emma tossed notebook and pen in the air, whooping with excitement, her irritation at Marji's attitude quite suddenly melted away.

'Where?' she demanded. 'Where is it?'

'I could tell you,' she replied, a broad grin spreading across her face. 'But then I'd have to kill you.'

Meet the Author

Liz Fielding was born with itchy feet. She made it to Zambia before her twenty-first birthday and, gathering her own special hero and a couple of children on the way, lived in Botswana, Kenya and Bahrain. Seven of her titles have been nominated for RWA’s Rita®; and she has won the Best Traditional Romance in 2000, the British Romance Prize in 2005 and the Best Short Contemporary Romance in 2006.

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