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"This is a lot of work. I don't know how you do it on a daily basis."
Kara Kincaid chuckled as she turned another page of the catering catalog spread open on the glossy surface of the low black lacquer coffee table in front of them.
"And I don't know how you keep half a dozen luxury hotels and resorts up and running. I'd rather pore over guest lists and seven-course menus any day than try to keep all of that afloat," she told her older sister's fiance.
Eli Houghton was tall and handsome and mouth-wateringly well-built. With chocolate-brown eyes and wind-blown, coffee-brown hair, the man could make a woman's heart skip a beat without even trying. When he did try
well, that was enough to stop a woman's heart from beating entirely.
"You're selling yourself short, darlin'," he told her, flashing a smile that made her own internal organs do things she didn't think her personal physician would approve of. "We may have different talents, but we've both managed to build successful businesses for ourselves."
"Except that Houghton Hotels and Resorts is worth millions of dollars, and I run Prestige Events out of my home office."
They were sitting on a black leather sofa in Eli's impressive ninth-floor office, but ordinarily they would be having this meeting in the small ground-floor library-turned-workplace of her meticulously restored circa 1806 French Quarter row house on Queen Street.
She loved the quaint, three-bedroom/three-bath home, which was more than enough space for a single gal like herself. But she did sometimes worry that running her business out of her home gave the wrong impression to potential clients. Not for the first time, she realized that she should probably give some serious consideration to renting an office elsewhere.
Possibly even an entire building where she could host tastings, put up displays and store reusable decorations so she wouldn't have to rent them from vendors. She might hire an assistantor even employees, plural, one dayto help her, since she'd been running things pretty much single-handedly so far.
She didn't regret the hard work. Prestige Events was, after all, her baby. The business she'd started on her own, stepping away from her family's interests in shipping and real estate to do it. But it might be nice, just once, to not have to be responsible for everything, for everyone else. Or at the very least, to have a handful of workers on staff that she could turn to when two arms, two legs, two ears and one mouth just didn't seem to be enough to get the job done on time.
"Give it time, sugar," Eli said in a voice as smooth as Kentucky bourbon, drawing her attention back to their conversation. "Keep doing what you're doing, and I'd be willing to bet that in a few years you'll be planning the wedding of one of the Obama girls."
Oh, her sister was a lucky, lucky woman. It was a good thing Kara was sitting down. The man oozed charm, and his softly spoken encouragement had her bones melting like butter on a biscuit.
Clearing her throat, she took a deep breath and straightened her spine. This was not the time to be going all weak-kneed over a man. Not the time or the man.
Eli was Laurel's fiance, for Pete's sake. In less than a month, the two would be married.
Yes, Kara found Eli attractive. She'd be willing to bet she was no different than any other red-blooded woman in South Carolinaor heck, the entire Eastern seaboardin that regard.
Yes, she'd sort of had a crush on him from the time they were teenagers. Again, that was no great surprise. Every girl in school had had her eye on the football player.
Well, almost every girl, anyway. Kara couldn't remember Laurel ever showing more than a passing interest in him while they were growing up. They'd always been friendsall of them, the entire Kincaid brood and the lone boy who lived with the Youngs on the neighboring estatebut it wasn't until much more recently that the two of them had decided to get engaged.
And Kara was happy for them, truly she was. It just wasn't easy to plan a wedding for her sister and the man for whom she'd spent the past ten years carrying a moderately flickering torch.
But she was doing her best. And her best required putting aside any inner turmoil she might be feeling to pull off what could arguably be considered the Wedding of the Year within Charleston's high society circles. The fact that it was her sister's wedding only raised the stakes, made the event that much more important to Kara, both personally and professionally.
Reaching past the catering brochure, she scooped up her glasses and slid them onto her nose. She didn't really need them, but she always felt more sure-footed with them on, and she could certainly use a little added confidencenot to mention an added barrier between herself and Eliright now.
"Once you and Laurel decide which proteins you want for the reception, it will be a lot easier to narrow down your choices. And that will actually be the fun part, since you'll be taste-testing samples before we plan the final menu."
Eli leaned back against the sofa, spreading his arms across the buttery-soft leather and crossing his legs to rest an ankle on the opposite knee. "We should probably leave that up to Laurel. I'd hate for us to have our first fight at the wedding reception just because I told you to order fried chicken instead of crab tarts."
Kara checked her watch. Her sister was already twenty minutes late. They'd purposely agreed to meet at Eli's office so his workday wouldn't be turned upside down, but Laurel's tardiness made it look as though that's exactly what was going to happen.
"She should be here any minute," Kara told him.
With a solemn nod, he said, "I'm sure she will be."
He sounded so certain
and so patient. More patient than Kara suspected she would be, if she were in his shoes.
The truth was, in all her time as an event coordinator, all the times she'd dealt with giddy, nervous, and even monstrously spoiled and demanding brides, she'd never put together a wedding for a woman as distracted and seemingly disinterested as her own sister.
Granted, there was a lot going on with their family at the moment. Bad enough that their father had been brutally murdered late one night in his office by someone who had tried to make it look like a suicide
. Bad enough that they'd discovered only after his death that he'd been leading a double lifeand had another adult son with another woman
. But now their own mother, Reginald's rightful widow, had been accused of killing her own husband.
Kara didn't care what secrets her father had been keeping or how hurt her mother might have been when she'd discovered his betrayal. Elizabeth Winthrop Kincaid would never have raised a hand against him. Her mama could barely squish a spider, let alone shoot her husband of nearly forty years in the head.
No, it was an absolute impossibility. And every single one of the Kincaid siblings felt the same; they were one-hundred-percent behind their mother. But tell that to the prosecutors who had accused Elizabeth of murder. Luckily, new information had surfaced about a mysterious man seen entering Reginald's office building the night of the murder, which was enough to get Elizabeth out on bailfor now.
So it was no wonder, really, that Laurelthe oldest Kincaid daughterhad more on her mind than just her upcoming nuptials.
Still, it struck Kara as slightly odd that her sister didn't already have a clear vision of her perfect wedding day. Most women did. Most girls did, starting around the age of eight.
Kara had never met a bride who didn't already have wedding colors firmly in mind. Who didn't already have an idea of the type of wedding dress she wanted to wear. (Laurel would be wearing a very traditional 1920s vintage gown in vanilla rather than white lace, but only because Kara had pushed and prodded and dragged her to fittings, essentially demanding her sister make a decision before time ran out.) Who showed up late for each and every scheduled meeting, be it about picking flowers or setting dates for the bachelorette party, rehearsal dinner, and ceremony itself.
She wondered if Eli had noticed his fiancée's peculiarat least in Kara's opinionbehavior, and if he found it as perplexing as she was beginning to.
From the looks of him, he either hadn't, or Laurel's frequent delays didn't bother him. He seemed totally at ease, even dressed for business, as he was now, in a charcoal suit and pomegranate-red tie.
He also didn't seem the least concerned with how much this wedding was going to cost. Traditionally, the bride's family footed the bill, and the Kincaids could certainly afford to host the celebration. But given the family's current troubling state of affairs and ongoing legal predicament, Eli had told the Kincaids not to worry about it and ordered Kara in no uncertain terms to be sure that all the bills associated with the upcoming nuptials were sent directly to him.
It was a gesture that hadn't surprised Kara. Eli had always been kind and generous and understanding. Growing up in the foster care system, he knew what it was like to have nothing, to go without. But even now that he'd made such a success of himself, he didn't pinch pennies or hoard his millions like a miser.
She only hoped he was still feeling as benevolent once he caught a glimpse of the invoices that were headed his way. The tally was already hovering around the six-figure mark in deposits alone.
As the seconds ticked past, marked by the heavy took took took of the antique grandfather clock standing sentinel against the far wall, Kara began to wonder what else she could discuss with Eli that would be wedding-related and not a repeat of previous exchanges. She could probably go back to the beginning of the catering brochure and explain the myriad choices again, in greater detail, but she knew Eli would see that for exactly what it wasa stall tactic.
And then she didn't need to stall, because the office door swung open and Laurel walked in. The epitome of feminine business chic, she was wearing a sage-green skirt and a matching tailored suit jacket the same color as her eyes over a white blouse. On her feet were stylish but practical taupe pumps, and her long, dark auburn hair hung around her shoulders and down her back with just a touch of curl at the ends.
Like their mother, Laurel was a true beauty. She could stop traffic with just a look, and had always had her choice of handsome and attentive beaux. Though until Eli, she'd never seemed willing to settle on any of them.
"Sorry I'm late," she murmured, not making eye contact with either Kara or her fiance as she slipped a pair of oversize sunglasses into her designer handbag.
Eli, who had gotten up the minute she'd entered, went to her and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "Don't worry, your sister has been keeping me plenty entertained. Apparently, we have more than three hundred different choices when it comes to entrees, each of which Kara was more than happy to describe in detail."
He turned back to Kara with a smile. "Details I'm sure she'll be regaling you with next."
He didn't seem the least bit put out at the prospect of hearing her catering spiel all over again, which prompted her to return his smile.
The corners of Laurel's mouth lifted in response, but her eyes were flat, her expression tense. Her fingers clutched the strap of her purse so tightly her knuckles were white.
"Can we talk?" she asked Eli in a low voice. Then to Kara, she said, "I'm sorry, but can we do this another time? I really need to speak with Eli."
"Of course," Kara replied, getting quickly to her feet to gather her things.
Folders under her arm and portfolio in hand, she started for the door, but paused before the couple. Eli still looked completely at ease, but tension radiated from Laurel in waves, and Kara tried without words, sister to sister, to convey her concern and ask if everything was all right, if there was anything she could do.
"Call me when you're ready to reschedule," she told them simply, offering Eli a short nod and brushing her hand encouragingly down her sister's arm as she continued on her way.
Closing the door behind her with a soft click, she hoped everything was all right and knew she would be calling her sister to find out what was going on as soon as she got home.
From the look on Laurel's face, and the fact that she'd sent her sister away, Eli knew something was wrong. He just hoped it was nothing too awful. Laurel and the rest of the Kincaid family had had a hell of a year already; he honestly wasn't sure sheor theycould take much more.
Then again, if whatever had his fiancée's Southern belle skin turning even paler was connected to her father's murder and her mother's subsequent arrest for the crime, or anything else related to her family's recent troubles, surely she would have shared the news with her sister rather than asking Kara to leave so they could talk privately. That prospect had his brow puckering and the wheels in his head turning at a rapid pace.
"Here, come sit down," he said, taking her hand and drawing her over to the sofa he and Kara had so recently vacated. Her long, slim, perfectly manicured fingers were chilly against his own, her movements stiff as she sat.
"Is everything all right?" he asked, suspecting it wasn't when she refused to meet his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Eli," she said, her voice wavering slightly. Her dark auburn hair fell around her face and shoulders like a shroud, shifting only when she finally raised her gaze to his. Taking a deep breath, she seemed to steel herself for whatever it was she was about to tell him.
"I'm sorry," she said again, the words rushing together, "but I don't think I can do this. I don't think I can go through with the wedding."
For a second, Eli was certain he'd heard her wrong. Maybe his mind had been on something else, and her words had gotten jumbled with his wayward thoughts.
In a burst of energy unlike any she'd shown since arriving at his office, Laurel jumped up, letting her purse fall to the floor while she skirted the coffee table and began to pace. Back and forth, back and forth, long, agitated strides wearing a path in front of his desk.
"This was a mistake," she said, twisting her hands together at her waist, keeping her gaze straight ahead as she spoke. "We rushed into things. And even though it seemed like a good idea at the time, circumstances have changed."