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Even the sandpipers were getting more action than Cara Chandler-Harris.
But she was working at this Turks and Caicos resort instead of frolicking in the crystal-blue surf with a nearly naked, oiled companion. Cara would be the sole designer showcasing her fairy-tale-inspired wedding dresses to two hundred industry professionals at a three-day bridal expo. The wedding-dress fashion show was one of the premier events and Cara Chandler-Harris Designs, which was still in its fledging stages, was poised to explode with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for exposure.
Adding testicles into the mix would only drive her to drink.
Cara swept a glance over the woman in white silk standing before her in the Ariel wedding dress and repositioned the model to face forward. Wincing as she knelt for the four hundredth time, Cara stuck another pin through the lace-trim edging of the mermaid skirt.
"Don't forget her heels will be five inches. Not four," her assistant, and sister, Meredith, reminded Cara as she handed her another pin. "And yes, I checked with the airline again. The missing bag with the shoes in it will be here by four o'clock."
"Thanks, honey. I took her heel height into account. Is Cinderella ready to go?" Cara glanced at her sister.
Meredith nodded and flipped her long ponytail over her shoulder. "Won't need more than a slight waist alteration. I did good matching the models with the dresses, don't ya think?"
She had and knew it. Meredith wore her designer's assistant role like a second skin. Cara smiled. "Worried I'm going to fire you for ripping Aurora's sleeve?"
"Nah. I'm more worried about stuff I've done you don't know about yet." With a saucy, cryptic grin, Meredith handed Cara the final pin and hummed under her breath as she tapped out something on her phone.
"You know I hate that song," Cara mumbled around the pin in her mouth.
"That's why I sing it. If little sisters aren't annoying, what are we good for?"
"Herding the rest of the girls into place. We only have three days until the expo starts and we haven't even done one run-through." Her lungs already felt tight to be so far behind schedule. Good God Almighty. Missing luggage, torn dresses and a room with a faulty air conditioner. And it was only their first day in Grace Bay. "Why did I let you talk me into this?"
Cara had no idea how her name had come up to the powers that be who'd selected her for this event. Yes, a small handful of Houston brides had marched down the aisle in her dresses in the eighteen months she'd been in business, and yes, all of them had graced the pages of glossy society magazines. Yes, Chandler and Harris were both names everyone in Houston knew. But still. Grace Bay was a long way from Houston.
"Because you recognize my brilliance. Stop stressing. Plans can be altered."
"Dresses can be altered. Plans are carved in granite, and hell has a special level for those who mess with mine."
Meredith waved in two more visions in white who had appeared at the entrance to the pavilion, both barefoot, like the others. All of the models' shoes were in the missing bags.
"Where's Jackie?" Cara glanced back at the empty entrance.
"Puking her guts out," one of the girls responded with a ladylike shudder. "I told her not to drink the water."
Cara frowned. "The resort water is purified."
"Then something else is wrong with Jackie," Meredith said and rubbed Cara's shoulder. "A virus. It'll pass."
"It better. She has to be on stage in six days." A virus. Which could easily be transmitted to everyone else. Cara eyed Jackie's roommate. "How are you feeling, Holly?"
The willowy blonde in the French-lace concoction called Belle stared at Cara blankly. "It's not catching. Jackie's pregnant."
Now seemed like a really good time to sit down. Cara dropped onto the heavy tarp covering the sand, while the other girls squealed over Holly's announcement.
Meredith settled in next to Cara. "I didn't know. About Jackie. I would have"
"It's not the end of the world. Women get pregnant. Women work while they're pregnant. All the time."
Her sister hesitated and then said, "I'll wear the dress for the run-through."
Thank God Meredith hadn't asked if Cara was okay. She'd had her fill of those kinds of questions two years ago, after her own pregnancy fiasco. Designing dresses had pulled her out of that misery and she didn't ever want to talk about it again.
"You can't wear it. The bust is too small and I can't alter it that much. Not here. Not in a few hours."
But the Asian-themed dress called Mulan wasn't too small for Cara.
The curse of average breasts.
Meredith had gotten Mama's gorgeous Chandler mahogany hair, the voluptuous Chandler body and the gracious Chandler mannerisms. Cara favored Harris blood, and Daddy was well-known for brains and business savvy, not his beauty. Neither Cara nor her father was dog-show worthy, but Cara certainly couldn't have claimed the Miss Texas crown like Mama and Meredith.
Cara staggered to her feet. "I'll wear it."
She'd worn it in the past. Not one dress with her name on the label escaped the Cara Test. When she finished the initial piece-together, she stood in front of the full-length mirror and said, "I do." If the words brought misty tears to her eyes, then the dress was right.
Except she always cried, because she created fantasies of lace and silk and happily-ever-after for someone else. Cara was just a glorified seamstress. A single seamstress.
She left Meredith and the chattering models in the pavilion and tottered through the sand to the concrete path leading into the heart of the resort. Twin five-story buildings lay on the outer perimeter and an enormous infinity pool dominated the space between. The pounding clamor of hammers rent the air, and scores of workers shouted to each other as they put the finishing touches on the renovations being executed for the resort reopening at the end of the week. The bridal expo was only a part of the festivities.
She skirted the pool, waited five minutes for the elevator, gave up and climbed the three flights of stairs to Jackie's room, near her own. Cara fetched the miserable girl some soda from the mini-fridge, then slipped into the dress flung haphazardly on Jackie's bed. Cara bit her lip and didn't say a word. Morning sickness sucked, and a dress that had taken Cara countless hours to envision and create likely rated pretty low on the list of Jackie's concerns.
The dress fit. Jogging, a low-carb diet and an extreme amount of willpower for everything except cabernet kept Cara's weight rock-steady. Cabernet calories didn't count.
The mirror taunted her but she didn't glance in it. Couldn't. Her reflection would only show what she already knewshe was always the bride, but never married.
Cara returned to the pavilionbarefoot, because her feet were already killing her and the broken elevator clearly hadn't been fixed yet despite the manager's promises. Cara had worn stilettos all day. Heels were as much a necessity as makeup and jewelry. A Chandler-Harris female did not leave the house unless fully dressed. But after the many problems she'd dealt with today, the last thing she wanted to do later was climb stairs in heels again.
She spent the next few minutes demonstrating to the girls how they should walk down the runway. To their credit, no one made a crack about how modeling was their job. If anyone had dared give Cara design instructions, she'd tell the person where to go, how fast and what to do upon arrival.
This was her life, her career, and nothing was going to keep her from replacing her dream of getting married with a flourishing wedding dress design business.
As Cara stood at the end of the runway going through a couple of more points, the girls shifted restlessly.
"Yummy," Holly whispered to Meredith, her eyes trained on something over Cara's shoulder. "That is one very well-put-together man."
Meredith's eyes widened to the size of salad plates. Cara spun, an admonishment on her lips designed to rid the pavilion of Yummy Interrupting Man. Whatever she'd been about to say died in her chest, and its death throes nearly coughed up her breakfast.
"Uh, Cara," Meredith whispered. "About that thing I did. The one you didn't know about
Keith Mitchell, the devil in a dark suit, stood in the middle of her pavilion. He crossed his arms and cocked his head. His piercing gaze swept Cara from head to bare feet, lingering on the wedding dress. "Now, this looks familiar."
"Well, well, well. As I live and breathe." Cara fanned herself in mock Scarlett O'Hara style and did her best cat-with-a-canary smile. Stretching those particular muscles stung her face. "It's my very own runaway groom. Still got on your Speedy Gonzales shoes?"
Keith glanced at his fifteen-hundred-dollar Italian laceups. "They're functional."
"Lucky for you, sugar." She nodded. "There's the door.
He grinned, white teeth gleaming. "Sorry to disappoint you, honey, but I'm afraid this is my show."
"What show?" She waved at the wedding dresses and swallowed against the grapefruit in her throat. Keith Mitchell. What in the world was he doing in Grace Bay? "You're here to volunteer as my replacement model? I might have a dress in the back in your size."
Ha. Not even one of Keith's long legs would fit in a dress, and besides, he'd exited the womb wearing a suit. An unwrinkled suit because wrinkles did not dare to tread in his world.
Keith. Here in Grace Bay and standing five feet from Cara while she wore a wedding dress. Her bare toes curled in mortification. She was naked without her heels.
"Not the fashion show. The whole show." Keith winked, as only he could. "Regent Group hired me to turn this resort into the highest-rated wedding destination in the world.
If I do it right, I'll then have the opportunity to replicate it with their other Caribbean properties."
Oh, God. He was here to star in her very own personal nightmare and take up all the oxygen on the entire island while he was at it. "This is what you're doing now? Weddings? You aren't a particular fan of weddings, as I recall."
"This is the very best kind of wedding. No bride." He chuckled and nodded at Cara. "Or at least that was the intent when I took the job. I stand corrected."
Her blood, dormant for two long years, started pumping in her veins, flushing her face with heat she'd never let on was more than a becoming blush. Cara had generations of gracious Southern women in her DNA.
"I was invited to participate and I design wedding dresses. If you weren't aware, perhaps you need to find a job you're more qualified for," she said sweetly.
Meredith made a little noise in her throat at Cara's tone, likely in warning. Rattlesnakes had a tail. Most men never saw Cara coming.
Keith, who wasn't anything close to most men, just laughed. "I knew. But I wasn't expecting you to be wearing one. Brings back fond memories."
"Save it, Mitchell. What do I have to do to get you out of my way for the next six days?"
His lips pursed as he raked her with a smoldering onceover. With close-cut hair the color of a midnight sky, a body strenuously kept in prime condition and deep caramel eyes, he was unfortunately the very definition of six-foot-three-inches worth of yummy. Always had been.
"Oh no." She shook her head as her body hummed without her permission. "Get your mind out of the sheets. You could have slept with me all you wanted if you'd taken a short walk down the aisle. That barn door's closed to you. Forever."
All traces of yumminess went out the window as his face hardened. Mitchell the Missile wasn't known for turning around failing companies because people liked his looks. Uncompromising, ruthless and detachedthat was the man in front of her. Just like the last time she'd seen himin her dressing room, forty-seven minutes before the flutist was scheduled to start playing Canon in D.
"We're going to be working together, Cara. Very closely. I suggest you get over our unfortunate history and be professional."
The models had gone quiet behind her, but every set of eyes burned into her back.
"Honey, I didn't have much to get over." That was a complete lie but she grinned through it. "I was over it five minutes after you left."
Also a lie. He didn't call her on it, though she was pretty sure he saw right through her.
"Then we have no problem. I'll buy you a drink later and we can catch up."
"As tempting as that sounds, I'll pass. Professionals don't drink on the job."
Keith left the beach pavilion with his head intact, a plus when unexpectedly confronted with an entire roomful of women in wedding dresses. God save him from brides.
He strode through the resort, noting a hundred issues requiring his attention. Tablet in hand, his admin, Alice, scurried after him, logging every sentence from his mouth in her efficient shorthand. She'd long grown accustomed to his ground-eating pace, and the ability to keep up was one of her many competencies.
He appreciated competency.
As he evaluated the construction crews' progress, checked in with the restaurant and catering staff and worked through a minor snafu with the recreation equipment, the image of Cara in that long white dress darted along the edges of his mind.
Not just in a dress, but in charge, running a business she'd created herself.
The harder he tried to forget, the more he thought about her. It was Cara but Cara unlike he'd ever seen her before. It was as oddly compelling as it was distracting.
That had not been his intent when he'd selected her for the bridal expo. Her connections were significant and her dresses had created consumer buzz in a tight industry, particularly among the moneyed crowd. Personal feelings couldn't interfere with what he knew this expo needed. Keith only had room for the best, and thorough research told him he'd found that in Cara Chandler-Harris Designs.
The decision to go with Cara was easy. Seeing her again was not.
Cara was a cold, scheming woman, no doubt. All women were schemingor at least the ones he'd dated werebut Cara had proved to be the worst by trying to trap him into a marriage he didn't want. Thankfully, her scheme hadn't worked and he'd gotten out before it was too late.
He would never again make the mistake of agonizing over the decision to ask a woman to be his wife, only to find his effort was all for nothing. It had taken considerably longer than five minutes to get over it, but he'd moved on and rarely thought about his former fiancée
This consulting job had dominated his focus for the better part of six months. Regent Group had hired him to revive an anemic line of Caribbean resorts, and evidence of the life he'd pumped into this property's veins bustled around him. He thrived on insurmountable challenges.