Worst New Year’s resolution…ever.
Of course, Cinderella Charming, C.C. to the world, had heard of “marriages of convenience.” After all, her parents had named her and her siblings after fairytale characters, even though she resembled one of Cinderella’s cute mice friends rather than a princess. She was also an avid romance reader.
But when her boss, the insanely handsome star quarterback and playboy Michael Campbell, proposed the fake marriage plan, her rational self screamed its objections. True, she’d be given a generous bonus when the marriage was annulled, so she could open her own restaurant. True, the fake marriage would help improve Michael’s image. True, she was in Scotland, one of her favorite places of all time. But C.C.’s main objection, and this was a big one, was that she feared she’d already fallen in love with Michael, and they would be spending New Year’s Eve together…alone.
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A Bride for a Day
By Pam Binder
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.Copyright © 2017 Pam Binder
All rights reserved.
"You can't marry just anyone."
Michael Campbell caught the meaning of his friend's words as well as the snow-dusted football Harold had lobbed in his direction. Settle down or risk everything you've fought to achieve. It wasn't the first time someone had said that to him.
He waited as an elderly couple, dressed in wool coats and green plaid scarves, crossed in front of them on their way to the café and their morning cup of coffee. They probably wondered why two grown men were playing catch in the street on New Year's Eve. He shrugged. Sometimes old habits were all a person had left. With the couple inside, Michael arced the football back to Harold.
Funny that it had taken traveling to Scotland over the holidays to bring the topic of how to repair his reputation to a head. Like most professional football players, he lived large, or at least that was the story the press told. The truth didn't sell as many newspapers.
Harold returned the football, a wild throw arching dangerously close to the waters of the River Ness as it meandered along the perimeter of Inverness.
Michael jogged to make the catch. His friend's accuracy was not what it once had been. No matter. His friend had his back.
Harold Donavan had been his best friend since grammar school. They'd played high school and college football together. They'd tossed the football back and forth while waiting for the bus and planning for the future. And as usual, Harold had a point. But not for the reasons his best friend thought.
Snow crunched under Harold's boots as he walked toward Michael. "I'm well aware of my situation," Michael said, heading back to position.
"I'm not sure you are." Harold stuffed his hands into the pockets of his wool overcoat. "Can we go inside? I'm freezing my briefs."
"Fact. It's the dead of winter in Inverness, Scotland, and you're dressed like it's springtime in Florida."
Michael palmed the football in one hand and opened the door to the café for Harold with the other. "It's not that cold."
"Remind me. Why are we friends?"
"We never lie to each other."
Harold paused at the threshold of the café. Warm air and the earthy smell of brewed coffee and the hum of conversation beckoned. "And I'm not lying to you now. You have to marry the right person."
"Have you forgotten that I'm secretly engaged?"
"I've tried. Tatiana's divorce from her husband is still in the blame-game stage."
"I need coffee." Michael entered the café and headed toward a table overlooking the River Ness. There was a tent card on the table that read Reserved for Michael Campbell. He flipped the card onto its face. He couldn't escape his celebrity no matter how far he traveled. If he had known his life's trajectory, would he have made the same decisions?
He nodded his thanks to Fiona, the barista who brought their coffee. He'd heard Fiona was one of the new owners of the coffee shop who had recently changed its name from the Water Horse to the Matchmaker Café.
Harold joined him and slid into the chair opposite, also nodding his thanks to Fiona. He leaned forward. "Need I remind you that you are Michael Campbell, professional star quarterback, that you have a Super Bowl ring you never wear, and that you are up for the lead role in a major motion picture? A role, by the way, that you told me you wanted. Your football fans won't care who you marry, but the producers of this film do. You need an image adjustment. Marriage to the right person will solve that issue."
"You make it sound like I dislocated my shoulder and need to make sure I choose the right surgeon."
Harold blew on his coffee. "Now you get it. The world is changing. They like to see their heroes settled down and headed for happily-ever-after."
"There's no such thing."
Harold chuckled and looked over the rim of his cup. "Your grandmother would send you to your room without dinner for that remark."
"I'm sure she would." Michael took a drink of his coffee and glanced out the window. The waters of the River Ness shone like polished silver, as though lit from below by thousands of fires. Winter winds skimmed over the surface until the water sparkled like diamonds. On a day such as this, it was easy to imagine how legends, such as the Loch Ness Monster — Nessie, to her fans — had come into being.
And with each passing moment, more of the town woke in excitement to the realization that today was New Year's Eve. It was time to review the past year's resolutions and make way for the new. Michael didn't believe in fantasies or promises. Those were the dreams of children.
He took another swallow of his coffee. Was this the year he could stop running from his past?
Harold continued, breaking into Michael's thoughts. "Tatiana has made it clear that the two of you can't announce your engagement, let alone marry, until she's signed the divorce papers. So she's not an option."
Michael finished his coffee. "I know."
"If you ask me, Tatiana is deliberately inventing reasons to delay finalizing her divorce."
Michael remembered that his grandmother had made the same observation when she'd visited him last week for Christmas. "You keep telling me things I already know. You're the one who went to law school. Tell me something useful."
"We both were accepted into Stanford Law School. You're the one who chose a football career."
Michael tore his gaze from the river and scanned the crowded coffee shop. "Dreams change. You should know that better than anyone. You're doing your lawyer thing. You're changing the topic."
"So sue me. You look out for everyone, my friend. Someone has to look out for you." Harold reached into his briefcase and pulled out a folder. "My advice is that we choose an unknown for your bride. The press finds that romantic."
"The press feeds off scandals." Michael brought his cup up to his lips, then remembered he'd finished his coffee.
"You're making my point. That's another reason for you to play it safe." Harold flipped open the folder. "She was right under our noses all along. Your girlfriend's assistant, C.C."
Michael clamped his jaws. "Out of the question." Michael started to rise from his chair. "I need a refill."
Harold reached out toward him. "Hold on. C.C. is perfect. A little plain, with out-of-control hair, no fashion sense, and mousey brown eyes, but we can glam her up. The 'ugly duckling transformed into a beautiful swan' fairy tale." Harold drained his coffee. "The press will eat it up. You usually go for the leggy model types. The big plus is that C.C. always smiles. That plays into our story that you need someone to lighten your stone-statue persona."
An image of C.C. burst into Michael's mind as though a door had opened. Outside of his grandmother, C.C. was the kindest person he knew. She had a way of adding sunshine to the gloomiest day. "Her eyes aren't mousey brown. They're more like warm honey, sometimes baked cinnamon."
Harold shoved his glasses up the ridge of his nose. "Okay. Good to know." He made a flourish of reaching for a pen in the inside pocket of his suit jacket and scribbling something in the margin. "I've made a note. Eyes change color." He gazed at Michael for a split second before turning the page. "Back to business. The best part is that we found out C.C. has a sick father."
Michael narrowed his gaze. Just yesterday C.C. had asked his help to coax a kitten out of tree. He'd almost broken his neck, but it had been worth it. But in all the time they'd spent together over the past three months, she'd never mentioned anything about her father, let alone that he was ill. "Why is C.C.'s father being sick a good thing?"
The brass bell over the front door chimed as Tatiana and her mother, Alba, made their grand entrance. They looked more like sisters than mother and daughter, and both were dressed in designer clothes in shades of gray and black. Tatiana's mother paused as though surveying her kingdom, motioned for Tatiana to find them a table, and then locked onto Michael.
Alba's high heels clattered on the wood floor as she headed his way. The woman was a bundle of sharp edges and judgment. Michael braced for the daily confrontation as she approached. He chided himself for his criticism. Alba had been a single mother raising a beautiful daughter. That couldn't have been easy. Especially when that daughter had attracted the attention of modeling agencies and powerful men. Alba was both manager and mother, orchestrating everything from modeling jobs to boyfriends, and always with the realization that in a blink it could all go away.
Alba reached Michael's table and pulled off her gloves. "Shouldn't you be getting ready for tonight's ceremony? Your wedding is this afternoon."
Michael turned to Harold and raised an eyebrow. "I'm getting married? Today?"
* * *
The sounds of the café closed in around him, ringing in his ears. He tried to calm the rising panic. He was getting married? Today? It was true that he was engaged to Tatiana and theoretically that meant that someday they would be husband and wife. If he were honest, he liked that she kept moving the date.
"You didn't tell him?" Alba said, in a shrill whisper.
"Alba. Could you give Michael and me a minute?"
Alba pulled her lips together into a thin line. "We don't have the luxury of time." She glanced over toward her daughter. Tatiana had a latte in each hand and was making her way to a vacant table near Michael's, avoiding his gaze.
Tatiana had been avoiding him since she'd returned from her visit with her soon-to-be-ex husband. Darrell Grant was a quarterback for a rival team and had a solid reputation on and off the field. Tatiana had never mentioned why she and Darrell had split, and it was none of Michael's business. "Aren't you and Tatiana joining us?" Michael said.
Ignoring Michael's question, Alba poked a finger into Harold's shoulder. "Convince your friend this is in all of our best interests and our only option. Do I have to remind you that we need to get this settled before my daughter changes her mind? Again." With a lift of her chin, she walked over to Tatiana's table.
When Alba was settled, Michael turned back to Harold. "Care to explain what that was all about?"
"I was getting around to it. As I mentioned, C.C. has a sick father."
Michael leveled his gaze at Harold. "Why is her father being sick good news? If you think that, then you're the one who's sick."
Harold adjusted his steel-gray tie. "Of course I'm not glad he's sick. However, this gives us an opportunity. Her father has leukemia and can't cover all of his medical expenses. C.C. is sending the majority of her paychecks to her brother and two sisters to help with his care. That means she's had to put off her dream. Care to guess what it is?"
"She's good with animals. They love her. She wants to be a veterinarian?"
"Isn't everyone good with animals?" Harold said.
"They hate you."
"Hilarious. No, smart guy, C.C. doesn't want to be a vet. She wants to open a sandwich shop. Like I said, our plan is perfect. We tell her that all she has to do is agree to enter into a fake marriage with you. We'll offer to give her a very generous bonus that will cover medical expenses for her father with enough left over to help her open the sandwich shop she's dreamed of. A small fortune for C.C. and her family, but the equivalent of a weekend shopping spree for Tatiana and her mother. The press will be convinced that you're ready to settle down and abandon your playboy ways. Your football contract will be renewed, and the movie deal to play the lead in Highland Rebel will be a sure thing. Then, after an acceptable amount of time has passed, we release a statement to the press that your marriage was a mistake. Something along the lines of the two of you being different people."
"That's an understatement."
"Good," Harold said. "We've reached common ground. By then, maybe Tatiana's divorce will be final, and you can marry your supermodel. The two of you can produce a litter of supermodels and football players. Everybody wins."
Michael watched his friend replace the folder in his briefcase. "Does Tatiana know?"
"It was her idea. Her mother doesn't like the plan. Not sure why. However, Alba couldn't come up with anyone better suited at such short notice. We're up against a time constraint. The movie studio plans to make their decision the first of January."
The brass bell over the entrance to the Matchmaker Café chimed as the door opened again. C.C. entered, carrying a box that Michael knew was filled with sandwiches she had made. She'd shared one of her creations with the owners a few weeks ago, and they'd asked her to supply them with as many as she could make. He didn't know how she did it, but she managed to turn a simple sandwich into a must-have experience. Michael's favorite was the Swiss cheese and ham on rye.
Snow dusted her black wool coat and highlighted the cascade of dark windblown curls flowing over her shoulders. Michael started to get up to help her with her packages, but William, the older man from behind the counter, reached her first. William worked with Fiona and reminded Michael of a slim Santa Claus.
C.C.'s smile for William, as he took the box and carried it back to the counter, gave Michael a twinge of jealousy that William instead of himself was the recipient of such a smile. Why hadn't he been the one to help her?
Then she glanced toward Michael and smiled in acknowledgement of his presence. It felt as though his heart had stopped beating. Two thoughts flooded to the surface. The first was that her eyes this morning were the color of nutmeg, with a touch of gold highlights. The second was that he was in deep trouble.CHAPTER 2
C.C. unwrapped her scarf from around her neck. The Matchmaker Café had become a morning tradition during their brief stay in Scotland. She stood near the entrance, drinking in the atmosphere. Warm air, laced with the earthy aroma of coffee, and the soothing hum of conversation greeted her like a close friend. The coffee shop seemed to whisper for her to take a breath and slow down. Everything will be all right, it seemed to say. Your father is a strong man. He'll beat this. She took in a ragged breath and straightened her shoulders. She needed coffee.
A few minutes ago she'd smiled over at Michael and received his signature stony stare. She didn't know why it bothered her so much that she couldn't get him to smile. She'd made it her mission and resorted to asking dumb football questions to see if she could break through his shell. Like why was a football called a pig-skin, or did the players really talk about football plays in the huddle or did they talk about who they were dating? Sometimes when she asked him a football question she thought she noticed a glimmer that might morph into a smile, but then it would disappear. She'd asked his grandmother last week, when she'd visited him on Christmas, why Michael was always so serious and if she knew of any way to make him smile. The wonderful woman had given C.C. a hug as the only response. C.C. was still trying to figure out what that had meant.
She shook her head. It wasn't her business. She had other issues to worry about. C.C. had noticed Tatiana and her mother huddled near Michael's table. She knew they wouldn't mind if she ordered her latte first before meeting with them for the morning briefing. Tatiana's mother insisted people around her be fully caffeinated at all times. C.C. sucked in a deep breath. She'd delayed long enough. Time to officially start her day. She unbuttoned her coat and headed over to the counter to place her order.
According to the archives at the library, the coffee shop and its rooms on the second and third floors had undergone numerous transformations over the past five hundred years. In the eighteenth century it had been a tavern, and a meeting place for the Jacobites, who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was later turned into a hotel, a brothel, and then during World War II it became a hospital. From then until recently, it had been a pub called the Water Horse, named after the Loch Ness Monster, but the new owners — or lessees, actually — had renamed it the Matchmaker Café. The guidebooks joked that there were likely more pubs and coffee shops in Scotland than sheep.
C.C. reached the counter and was greeted by Fiona's smile and faint Scottish brogue. Fiona, along with her sisters Bridget and Lady Roselyn, had taken over the lease of the coffee shop. The young woman's blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she wore black rimmed glasses that instead of looking dorky reminded C.C. of her adorable younger sister, Rose.
A wave of homesickness struck C.C. so fast she had to reach out for the counter. How long had it been since she'd been home? Six months? A year? She gripped the counter tighter. It was closer to eighteen months.
"Are you all right?" Fiona said.
C.C. nodded. "I'm fine. I made an extra batch of sandwiches this morning. I thought with the holiday you might need them."
"You're a mind reader. We are expecting a crush of people today. Do you want your usual?"
Excerpted from A Bride for a Day by Pam Binder. Copyright © 2017 Pam Binder. Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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