The Marriage Conspiracy

The Marriage Conspiracy

by Christine Rimmer

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Overview

Hardworking detective Dekker Smith had always been beautician Joleen Tilly's best buddy. But when Joleen fell for a rich boy's honeyed lies--producing precious but fatherless little Sam--and Sam's powerful grandparents demanded custody, Dekker proposed an astonishing solution: a most convenient marriage!

For Dekker had come into family money and was now wealthy enough to fend off any claims on Joleen's toddler. But could Joleen fend off her sudden, searing desire for her in-name-only husband? Would that unexpected heat burn the bonds between best friends? Or forge a family that was meant to be?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426857188
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 06/01/2010
Series: Congratulations Series , #1423
Sold by: HARLEQUIN
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 427,167
File size: 630 KB

About the Author

A New York Times bestselling author, Christine Rimmer has written over ninety contemporary romances for Harlequin Books. Christine has won the Romantic Times BOOKreviews Reviewers Choice Award and has been nominated six times for the RITA Award. She lives in Oregon with her family. Visit Christine at http://www.christinerimmer.com.

Read an Excerpt



It was hot, without a hint of a breeze. Mid-October and it felt like the dog days of August. The wedding guests wandered beneath the sweet gums and pecan trees that shaded Camilla Tilly's backyard, faces shining with sweat, sipping cold drinks in which the ice melted too soon.

Joleen Tilly, Camilla's oldest daughter and sister to the bride, stood at the cake table from which she'd just shooed away three frosting-licking children. Joleen felt as if she was melting in her ankle-length rose-colored satin and lace bridesmaid's gown.

And she couldn't help suspecting that the cake was melting, too. The icing looked thinner, didn't it, in a couple of places? The cake had five layers, each bordered with icing swags and accented with buttercream roses. Hadn't the top four layers slid sideways the tiniest bit, wasn't the whole thing leaning to the right, just a little?

Joleen shook her head—at the cake, at her own discomfort, at the whole situation. She had tried to convince her sister to rent a hall, but DeDe dug in her heels and announced that she'd always dreamed of getting married in Mama's backyard. There was no budging DeDe once she dug in her heels.

So here they all were. Melting.

And way behind schedule. The ceremony was supposed to have started an hour ago. But Dekker Smith, the closest thing the Tilly sisters had to a big brother and the one who had promised to give DeDe away, had yet to arrive.

As Joleen stewed about the missing Dekker, about the cake, about the sweltering heat, her uncle Hubert Tilly wandered over, beer in hand. He stood beside her, leaned her way and spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "It's about time we got this thing started, don't you think?"

"Yes. And we will, Uncle Hubert. Real soon."

"Good." Her uncle lifted his beer to her in a toast. "Here's to you, Joly. We all know it's bound to be your turn next." He threw back his big head and drank.

Joleen, who sometimes got a little tired of hearing how it would be "her turn next," smiled resolutely and watched uncle Hubert's Adam's apple bounce up and down as he drained the can.

"Well, what do you know?" Uncle Hubert said when he was through guzzling. "It's empty." The can made groaning, cracking sounds as he crushed it in his beefy fist. "Better get another…" He headed off toward the coolers lined up against the garden shed. Joleen watched him go, hoping he wouldn't get too drunk before the day was over.

She turned her attention to the cake again and decided that it should not sit out here in this heat for one minute longer. Her mother's Colonial Revival house had been built in 1923. But thirty years ago, when her father bought it, one of the first things he'd done to it was to put in central heat and air.

She grabbed herself a couple of big, strong cousins—a Tilly, from her father's side and a DuFrayne, from her mother's. "Pick up that cake table," she told them. "And do it carefully."

The cousins lifted the table.

"Okay, good. This way…" Joleen backed toward the kitchen door slowly, patting the air with outstretched hands and speaking to her cousins in soothing tones. "Watch it… careful… that's right…." She opened the door for them and ushered them into the coolness of her mother's kitchen. "Watch that step. Easy. Good."

Once she'd closed the door behind them, she led them to the little section of wall on the far side of the breakfast nook. "Right here, out of the way. Just set it down easy." The cousins put the table down.

Joleen let out a long, relieved sigh. "Perfect. Thank you, boys."

"No problem," said Burly, the DuFrayne cousin. His full name was Wilbur, but everyone had always called him Burly. "When's this thing getting started, anyway?"

"Soon, real soon," Joleen promised, thinking about Dekker again with a tightening in her tummy that was a little bit from irritation and a lot from worry.

Dekker had called yesterday afternoon and left a message on the machine at Joleen's house. He said he wouldn't make it for the rehearsal, after all, but that he'd be there in plenty of time for the wedding. Joleen wished she'd been home when he called. She would have gotten some specifics out of him—like a flight number and an arrival time, for starters.

And maybe even an idea of what the heck this particular trip was about, anyway. Dekker had told her nothing so far. The last time she'd actually spoken to him, early last Wednesday morning, he would only say that he was leaving for Los Angeles right away. He'd promised he'd be back in time for the rehearsal— which, as it turned out, he was not.

Joleen assumed it must be a business trip. A lot of his clients insisted on strict confidentiality, so that would account for his being so hush-hush about the whole thing. And sometimes, she knew, his job could be dangerous. Was this one of those times?

Joleen pushed that scary thought right out of her mind.

She'd tried more than once to reach him on his cell. And each time she did, she got a recorded voice telling her that the "customer" wasn't available and offering her the chance to leave her name and number. She had left her name and number. But she'd never heard back.

"Joly, you are lookin' strained," said the Tilly cousin, whose name was Bud. "You okay?"

"Well, of course I am." She arranged her face into what she hoped resembled a confident smile. "Help yourselves to a beer. There's plenty. Outside in the coolers. And right there in the fridge, too."

Bud and Burly turned for the refrigerator. Joleen went out the kitchen door again, into the blistering backyard.

Her aunt LeeAnne DuFrayne, Burly's mama, was standing under one of the two patio ceiling fans, holding the front of her dress out at the neck so that the fan's breeze could cool her a little. As Joleen went by, Aunt LeeAnne let go of her dress and caught Joleen's arm.

"You have done a beautiful job here, hon."

"You're a sweetheart to say so, Aunt LeeAnne. Too bad it's so darn hot."

"You can't control the weather, hon."

"I know, I know."

"The backyard looks festive. And Mesta Park is such a lovely area. I always admire it so every time I visit."

Mesta Park lay in the heart of Oklahoma City, a charming old neighborhood with lots of classic prairie-style houses and graceful mature trees. Joleen's mother had owned the house on Northwest Seventeenth Street since she herself had been a young bride.

Aunt LeeAnne patted Joleen's arm. "I do think we ought to start the ceremony soon, though, don't you?"

"Soon," Joleen repeated. What else could she say?

Aunt LeeAnne stopped patting. She gripped Joleen's arm and whispered in her ear, "I see that you invited the Atwoods."

Joleen made a noise in the affirmative and flicked a quick glance toward the well-dressed couple standing by themselves near the punch table. Bobby Atwood, the couple's only son, had died just six weeks ago, in a power-skiing accident on Lake Thunderbird. Pictures of the funeral service had dominated the local news. Atwood, after all, was an important name in the state of Oklahoma.

In spite of what had happened between herself and Bobby, the sight of his grieving parents at graveside had proved too much for Joleen. She hadn't been able to stop herself from reaching out to them.

"You have a good heart, Joly," whispered Aunt LeeAnne. "There aren't many who would be so forgiving."

"Well, it seemed like a nice gesture, to ask them if they'd like to come."

Aunt LeeAnne made a small, sympathetic noise and patted Joleen's arm some more.

Joleen added, "And I do want Sam to know his father's parents."

Sam. Just the thought of her little boy lightened Joleen's mood. She looked for him, caught sight of him with her younger sister, thirteen-year-old Niki, about twenty feet away, near the tall white picket fence that surrounded her mother's backyard on three sides. Niki, in a rose-red dress identical to Joleen's, had agreed to watch Sam so that Joleen could handle all the details of running the wedding.

Sam had his daddy's hair, thick and straight and sandy colored. As Joleen watched, he threw back that sandy head and let out his almost-a-baby laugh. At the sound of that laugh, Joleen's heart seemed to get bigger inside her chest.

Then she noticed that Bobby's father was staring right at her.

Robert Atwood quickly looked away. But not before she saw a lot more than she wanted to see in his cold, gray glance. Her little boy's grandfather did not approve of her. And he was looking down his snooty nose at the members of her family.

The Atwoods moved in the best circles. They hung out with the governor and his pretty wife, attended all the most important political and social events in the city. Robert Atwood's expression made it painfully clear that he found this small-scale backyard wedding to be tacky and totally beneath him.

And now he was staring at Sam. So was his wife, Antonia. The woman wore a look of longing so powerful it sent a chill down Joleen's spine in spite of the heat.

I probably should have listened to Dekker, Joleen thought. Dekker—who'd better show up soon or they were going ahead without him—had warned her to stay away from Robert Atwood and his wife.

"Unless you're after a little of the Atwood money," he'd said. "Sam is entitled to some of that."

"It is not the money, Dekker. Honestly. We're gettin' by all right."

"Okay. Then forget the Atwoods. They have too much money and too much power and, given the kind of son they raised, I'd say they're way too likely to abuse both."

She had punched him playfully on the arm. "You are so cynical it scares me sometimes."

"You ought to be scared of the Atwoods, of the trouble they'll probably cause you if you tell them about Sam. I mean it. Take my advice and stay away from them."

But she hadn't taken her friend's advice. Robert Atwood sold real estate on a grand scale. He dealt in shopping centers and medical complexes and skyscrapers with a thousand and one offices in them. She had called him at Atwood and Son Property Development.

At first, Bobby's father had refused to see her or to believe that his precious son could have fathered a child he didn't even know about. In the end, though, the hope that there might be something of Bobby left on the earth must have been too powerful to deny. He had called Joleen and asked if he and his wife might meet Sam. And as soon as they set eyes on her baby boy, they knew who his father had to be.

"Joly, hon…"

Joleen looked into her aunt's flushed face and smiled. "Hmm?"

"I just have to say this. I have got a powerful feeling that we will be watching you take your walk down the aisle very soon now." Aunt LeeAnne beamed up at her.

Joleen kept her smile. But it did get old sometimes.

Here's to you, Joly. We all know it's bound to be your turn next….

I just know you are going to meet someone so special….

I see a man in your future, hon. The right man this time….

Those she loved would not stop telling her that true love and happily-ever-after were coming her way.

Joleen fully understood why they did it. None of them could quite believe that she, the levelheaded one, the both-feet-firmly-on-the-ground one, had gone and fallen for a rich boy's honeyed lies.

They felt sorry for her. They wanted the best for her.

And to them the best meant a good man to stand at her side, a husband to help her raise her child.

"I don't think so, Aunt LeeAnne."

"Well, you just think what you want. I am right about this and you will see that I am."

Oh, please, Joleen thought. As if she even had time for love and romance at this point in her life. She had a toddler to raise and a business to run—not to mention a recently delinquent thirteen-year-old sister and a stunningly beautiful fifty-year-old widowed mother who somehow managed to fall in and out of love on what seemed like a weekly basis. DeDe might be off her hands after today, but Niki and her mother still counted on Joleen to be there whenever they needed her.

And really, Joleen didn't mind being the one they counted on. She was happy. She honestly was. With her precious little son and her beloved if somewhat troublesome mama and sisters, with the beauty salon she and her mother operated together and with lots of loving family and good friends—including Dekker, who in the past few years had become her closest friend.

Dekker, who was now so late she doubted he would make it at all.

Nope. It would not be Joleen's turn next. Not for a decade or so, at least. Maybe more than a decade. Maybe never. In any case, not "next."

But she didn't tell her aunt LeeAnne that. Instead, she hooked her arm around her aunt's round shoulders and gave a loving squeeze. "Whatever you say."

***

By three-thirty, Joleen decided they had waited long enough. She left the drooping guests behind beneath the pecan trees, entered the house and climbed the stairs to her mother's big bedroom on the second floor, which today was serving as the bride's dressing room.

DeDe, who looked absolutely breathtaking in floor-length white satin, came at her the minute Joleen appeared in the doorway. "Where is he? Is he here yet?"

Joleen shook her head.

"Oh, no." DeDe stopped in midstride and caught her full lower lip between her small white teeth. "How's Wayne holdin' up?"

Wayne Thornton was DeDe's groom. "Wayne is great. He's down in the kitchen right now, hanging out with Bud and Burly."

"He's not mad?"

"Wayne? Are you kidding?" Wayne Thornton was a veterinarian. He was also about the calmest, most easygoing person Joleen had ever had the pleasure to meet. "I promise you, Wayne is fine. Waiting patiently, swapping jokes with Bud and Burly."

"I want to see him."

"Well, all right, I'll just—"

"Wait. Stop right there."

Joleen did as her sister commanded.

"What do you think you're doing?" DeDe accused. "You know I can't see him. It would be bad luck."

Joleen lifted a shoulder in the tiniest of shrugs. Of course, she knew that.

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Marriage Conspiracy 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a true *love* story not just a romance. Dekker and Joleen Tilly have been neighbors all their lives and are *best friends*. We meet Joleen's family that Dekker has adopted as his own -- Camilla, the 50ish mother, and Joleen's 2 younger sisters DeDe and Niki, all 3 are real characters that Dekker loves. Dekker has had his own upsets in live and finding he is the missing Bravo baby is the biggest! Dekker does propose a marriage of convience to help Joleen keep her toddler. It does take a little time for them to realize that they do LOVE each other. Wonderful book! Ms Rimmer has outdone herself! This is the final of the 3 missing Bravo baby books--good story! Each can stand alone but all 3 together make it such a wonderful story!